With assistance from President Bush's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a key component of President-elect Clinton's environmental policy may be swiftly set in motion.

The EPA is currently preparing options for a carbon-based fuels tax to be offered to the Clinton-Gore transition team. Chances are good that a carbon tax--similar to the one Vice President-elect Albert Gore sponsored in the Senate last year--will be proposed in 1993.

Carbon-based fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, generate carbon dioxide when burned, a gas which is gradually increasing in the atmosphere. Some researchers have suggested that increased carbon dioxide, along with several other trace gases, could trigger a warming of the earth's climate. A carbon tax is the likely remedy for the incoming president, who has called for a permanent cap on industrial carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels.

Studies have shown that a carbon tax necessary to achieve that objective would exact massive costs on the economy in the form of lost jobs and reduced economic growth. By the year 2000, a total of 600,000 jobs would be lost, according to the CONSAD Research Corporation, with job losses reaching 1.5 million by the year 2005. Nearly 5 million other jobs would be at risk of reduced wages and hours worked, with shorter employment terms and longer layoffs.

A carbon tax would produce annual losses in gross national product of 1.7 percent. Thousands of businesses in the coal, mining, petroleum, utility, and transportation service industries would be forced to curtail operations or close down. Michigan would be among the states hit hardest, with 23,000 jobs lost primarily in the mining, paper products, and transportation equipment industries.

The Clinton-Gore team is also on record as supporting an increase in fuel efficiency standards for automobiles from 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) to 40 mpg. The immediate consequence of such stringent standards would be the production of smaller and lighter cars more prone to traffic fatalities. Downsizing to meet the current standard of 27.5 mpg will cause between 35,000 and 67,000 unnecessary highway deaths, according to a Brookings Institute/Harvard University study. In Michigan, that means as many as 2,850 traffic fatalities for the current model year of automobiles will be a direct result of the efficiency standard. A hike to 40 mpg would raise that figure significantly.

Such a drastic realignment of national energy priorities can only be justified by sound scientific evidence of ecological crisis. Yet there is nothing even approaching a scientific consensus about the likelihood of catastrophic global warming. A poll conducted by Gallup showed that only 19 percent of scientists think the slight increase in average global temperature in the early 1980s was due to human activities. Even the Greenpeace organization, which conducted its own poll of climate experts, was unable to find a majority to agree with its doomsday scenario: only 13 percent felt that a "runaway greenhouse effect" is probable, while 32 percent think it is only "possible." Forty-seven percent of the respondents said it was not probable at all.

Even if one accepts the notion that humans could cause a warming of temperatures over the next century, a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature reveals that one-third of man-made carbon dioxide emissions are not even caused by industrial sources, but result from burning foliage. Most of this "biomass burning" occurs in Africa, where grasslands are routinely burnt to renew them for grazing. A carbon tax here would have absolutely no effect on that activity, and would yield an insignificant reduction in the industrial world's carbon dioxide output.

Before making hasty decisions, President Clinton should read the June 1992 statement issued by some of the world's most renowned scientists known as the Heidelberg Appeal. Signed by 218 scientists including 27 Nobel Prize-winners from the U.S., it was addressed to the heads of state attending the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil. The statement admonished the world's leaders to be wary of "the emergence of an irrational ideology which is opposed to scientific and industrial progress and impedes economic and social development." That ideology aims to restrain human interaction with nature, rather than harnessing natural forces to meet human needs.

These prominent scientists urged that public policy be based solely on scientific criteria. They were particularly distressed about the needless politicization and misapplication of their discipline. "[We] forewarn the authorities in charge of our planet's destiny against decisions which are supported by pseudo-scientific arguments or false and non-relevant data."

Requiring the nation to radically alter its energy use, which is 90 percent carbon-based, will have severe consequences. Our sluggish economy is already saddled with over $125 billion in annual environmental regulatory compliance costs, according to Dr. Thomas D. Hopkins of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Surely, ecological central planning can be no more successful here than economic central planning was in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union, especially if it is backed up by poor information.