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How It Became Safe to Embrace Global Warming

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: How It Became Safe to Embrace Global Warming

“With the oddball exception of Lord Oxburgh, the retiring chairman of Shell, who overlearned the lesson and has taken to predicting planetary disaster, Mr. Browne and his copycats have largely restricted themselves to acknowledging the inevitability of carbon regulation”

Posted 7 July 2005

It’s been hard not to feel a sneaking admiration for George Bush and a bit of involuntary embarrassment at the same time. It’s the same feeling inspired by a seven-year-old who keeps insisting on the improbability of one guy and some reindeers delivering gifts to every house on Christmas night. He expects a pat on the head for this triumph of reason and practicality. Instead, the grown-ups in the room mutter about his poor social skills.

Mr. Bush is finally getting the message about being more agreeable if he’s going to be a member of the club. At this week’s G-8 summit at the Gleneagles golf resort in Scotland, he’s expected to accede gracefully to the need to worry about carbon dioxide in the name of “climate change.” On British TV on Monday night, Mr. Bush did not exactly endorse the view that the planet is warming. Instead, he merely called the output of CO2 — whose concentration in the atmosphere has increased from 0.028% to 0.036% since the advent of industrial civilization — “a significant, long-term issue that we’ve got to deal with.”
[George W. Bush]

Mr. Bush stands himself in excellent company here with some of the most respected names in business: GE’s Jeff Immelt, Duke Energy’s Paul Anderson, Ford’s Bill Ford Jr. They, in turn, have benefited from the pioneering PR efforts of BP’s John Browne, whose conversion to climate change was based firmly on science — sociology not climatology. He assayed the public mood and started referring to his company as “Beyond Petroleum” even as he went about turning BP, once a smallish, regional producer of smelly petroleum, into a much bigger, global producer of smelly petroleum.

But listen between the lines: With the oddball exception of Lord Oxburgh, the retiring chairman of Shell, who overlearned the lesson and has taken to predicting planetary disaster, Mr. Browne and his copycats have largely restricted themselves to acknowledging the inevitability of carbon regulation, not the inevitability of carbon-driven global warming. Most of all, they see a cornucopia of subsidies and tax breaks flowing from an emerging Western consensus to treat carbon as a problem, and Mr. Bush, with his talk of “technological” fixes, is clearly moving their way.

It has been more than 25 years since assertions by scientists of global warming caused by industrial CO2 production first started appearing on the nation’s front pages. Mr. Bush’s new pleasantry on the subject is proof of two lessons since then: Even as social pressure to affirm global warming has become nigh irresistible, the cost of complying with this naggingly uncertain hypothesis has been steadily falling.

Once companies turned their attention to CO2, long ignored as a costless waste product, they found the first whacks came easily — indeed, they discovered that CO2 reductions are a byproduct of routine cost-cutting. BP’s Lord Browne set the fashion in the mid-1990s by restyling his efficiency gains as “emissions cuts” and trumpeting them in press releases.

Next came the dawning realization that, hey, a company might actually get paid twice for these efficiency gains. BP has led the way here too. Last month, its lobbyists were quietly working Capitol Hill to promote the Hagel bill, which would grant tax breaks for companies that reduce CO2 emissions.

BP has been similarly active on the sidelines of this week’s Gleneagles summit. There, the company is promoting a nearby “green” power station: It would be fueled with hydrogen stripped from natural gas, while BP would inject the residual carbon dioxide into a fading North Sea oil well. Again, the company’s green eye is fixed on its own bottom line: Postponed would be the mandatory environmental costs entailed in shutting down the tapped-out offshore well. At the same time, BP also hopes to persuade European regulators to grant valuable carbon credits for the project, even though it creates a new CO2 source rather than reducing or eliminating an existing source.

It should be added, of course, that nothing advocated by the greenskinned CEOs, or proposed at Gleneagles, or embodied in the Kyoto Treaty (which the U.S. continues to reject) would ever cause true climate worriers to brighten up. The amount of manmade CO2 pouring into the atmosphere will continue to increase thanks to the fast-developing Chinese and Indian economies, home to half of mankind.

Happily, knowledge has also advanced in the past 25 years. If the climate conundrum hasn’t been solved, it has at least become possible for a reasonably diligent layman to understand that the predictions of dire climate change that fill the evening news rest upon quantities that are less than the margin of error in the data, as well as upon hypotheses that contain a dismayingly large speculative element in them.

Indeed, opponents of mandatory carbon restraints, such as the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, readily concede the claim that CO2 is raising the earth’s temperature — because all the evidence points to the effect being small and innocuous. In turn, advocates of dire climate scenarios have been forced to shift their footing to new theories that posit large and catastrophic effects from minor changes in average global temperatures. A recent favorite is the suggestion that a small temperature increase might stop the recirculation of cold Arctic waters, leading to global weather havoc.

USA Today went so far as to pronounce the debate “over” in a recent front-page editorial, and it’s almost true. Global warming — the belief system, not the scientific puzzle — has now been fully domesticated and institutionalized. That’s why Mr. Bush felt free to offer his quasi-embrace this week. From a threat to the earth or threat to the economy (depending on your point of view), climate change has become just another excuse for tax breaks, corporate subsidies and soppy PR.

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