New Energy Tax is Bad Economics and Faulty Science

One of President Clinton's first actions in the White House was to propose a new energy tax. In 1993, the widely unpopular proposal died quickly in a Democratic Congress, but it could be back in 1997.

At a recent United Nations conference on "global warming," State Department officials expressed the administration's support for a legally binding international treaty to reduce man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, a product of the burning of fuels such as gasoline. Like the president's 1993 proposal, this treaty would impose immense costs on the auto industry and other important parts of the U.S. economy. Michigan would be hard-hit.

"For the first time ever, the world's scientists have reached the conclusion that the world's changing climatic conditions are more than the natural variability of weather," declares Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth. "Human beings are altering the world's natural climate system." Wirth, a high ranking State Department official and long-time environmentalist, is relying on a controversial UN report which makes these claims. However, a recent incident has many observers wondering whether the UN is a credible source of sound science.

The UN's latest scientific assessment of the prospects for global warming was supposed to be a balanced, objective report, with space given to conflicting opinions in a peer-reviewed process. Yet, after the UN's 1995 report was approved by contributing scientists, it was improperly revised and rewritten. Behind closed doors, the tone of some of the report's most vital conclusions was altered. The changes effectively removed or downplayed scientific doubts about human influence on climate.

After subjecting the greenhouse theory to rigorous scientific scrutiny and taking into account the great uncertainties about the climate system, the peer-reviewed version concluded that "None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gases." In the edited version, however, this sentence and others which did not buttress the greenhouse theory were deleted or modified.

The belated editing drew strong criticism from highly reputable scientists. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Frederick Seitz, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, charged that the rewrite violated standard scientific procedures. Warning that the UN's biased revisions could "deceive policy makers and the public into believing that the scientific evidence shows human activities are causing global warming," Seitz remarked: "I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer review process."

Criticism from such a respected figure as Seitz set off shock waves throughout the scientific community. Several articles about the controversy appeared in the distinguished journals Nature and Science. UN officials denied Seitz's charges, arguing that the rewrite was necessary to "improve the report's scientific clarity." However, the alteration of the report suggests strongly that the UN's motivation is political. If there were truly a scientific consensus about the greenhouse theory, why would the UN have to doctor its scientific report?

Unfortunately, the UN is a very politicized forum which does not have sound science as its first priority. For example, officials from Cuba and India have argued that the supposed impending global warming catastrophe should entitle Third World countries to more foreign aid from the U. S. The reality is that outside the UN, there is no scientific consensus that such an environmental catastrophe is likely.

The UN treaty negotiations, however, could do serious damage to the U.S. economy. Measures to head off global warming would lead to higher prices for carbon-based fuels, transportation, and electricity, with the costs felt throughout the economy. By some estimates, the UN proposals would shrink the U.S. economy by 3 percent, resulting in lost jobs and diminished U.S. competitiveness in international trade.

The global warming scare is more hype than science. In fact, the most reliable global temperature data from satellites show a slight cooling since 1979.

It would be a terrible mistake to burden consumers and producers with energy taxes or other harmful policies in deference to the United Nations and in contravention of scientific evidence. But it wouldn't be the first time that politics won out over sound science.