Bewarin' O' the Greens


"It is never easy to stand alone on principle, but sometimes leadership requires that you do," President Bush told representatives of 178 nations at the U.N.'s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. He correctly pointed out that the United States has taken the toughest stand on environmental policy of any country. And except for a few Bushlike gaffes—calling himself a "greenie," for instance—the president did pretty well under the circumstances.

Two weeks of bluster and browbeating by environment ministers and green special-interest pleaders didn't persuade Bush to endorse any enforceable treaties. Still, the president approached the summit in classic Bush style. His narrow focus—jobs vs. environmental protection—will give him a few short-term political benefits. But had he also made a broader assault on apocalyptic environmentalism, he could have recast the debate so that sensible people could start crafting intelligent policies.

The economic costs of environmental regulations are staggering. The late columnist Warren Brookes placed the annual costs of the 1990 Clean Air Act alone at $40 billion. Other pollution controls cost at least $100 billion each year. The benefits of these regulations are less dramatic. For example, Resources for the Future's Paul Portney has estimated the annual benefits of the Clean Air Act at no more than $15 billion.

Nonetheless, green activists contend that additional environmental regulations—especially those that mandate "clean" technologies—will encourage rapid economic growth.

"The biggest new market in the history of world business is the market for the new products and new processes that will make possible economic progress without environmental destruction," Sen. Al Gore (D–Tenn.) told CNN on June 12. "Millions of jobs are at stake unless we can lead the environmental revolution and create the new jobs that will come out of this revolution." This argument has become a mantra for Gore, the Environmental Defense Fund's Michael Oppenheimer, and other "market-oriented" greens.

But abandoning existing technologies, retooling factories, and diverting expertise to fulfill green goals levies costs beyond the mere out-of-pocket expense of new equipment. Gore and Oppenheimer ignore the alternative uses to which the same investment of time, talent, and capital could be put—the "opportunity cost" of paying for mandatory environmental measures. Using their logic, the Los Angeles riots were an economic godsend—think of all the jobs rebuilding the city will create!

It's difficult for Bush to make a compelling case against command-and-control regulations. His administration, after all, championed the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. As "the regulatory president," he is hardly credible denouncing the economic costs of regulation.

Bush would occupy firmer ground if he scientifically challenged apocalyptic environmentalism. Pick your doomsday scenario: global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation, pesticide residues, population growth. The scientific consensus in each area clearly indicates no cause for alarm.

These emerging areas of consensus frustrate the apocalyptics. "It is journalistically irresponsible to present both sides [of the global warming issue] as though it were a question of balance," bleated greenhouse alarmist Stephen Schneider in The Boston Globe.

But if there is only one side to the real story, it isn't Schneider's. Every responsible survey of climate-change researchers (including one by Greenpeace International) shows that fewer than one in six believe runaway warming will occur.

In Rio, George Bush was correct to caution against unwise regulations. The administration should also engage in a spirited assault against the eco-doomsters. An army of honest scientists could readily step forward to confirm the hopeful news.