Week in Review: July 3

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Climatic signals are mixed, China takes a step toward academic freedom, and the European Union continues its love-hate relationship with biotechnology.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

A Big Week for Our Changing Climate?

With the passage of the America Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009—better known as the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade (or, for the mouth-foaming conservative readers, cap-and-tax!!)—by the US House of Representatives, it might have seemed that some great impasse had been broken. Finally, the US is going to do something about climate change, called the self-appointed choirs of heaven. Except it’s not—not with this bill anyway. The math behind the offsets provided for by the bill is fuzzier than a long-bearded peach. The bill allows for the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere the same way a stage magician makes a rabbit disappear into a top hat: essentially, by hiding it under the table. The thousand-page document would be better—to steal from Al Gore—put in a lock box than enacted into law. I would prefer that it be dropped into an oceanic deep. Unhappily, that is not Waxman-Markey’s next stop. Instead, it goes to the Senate.

By all accounts, passage there is far less certain, even with the expected arrival of the newest Senator, Al Franken of Minnesota. This is only in small part because the bill is so awful. There will be a number of competing bills. Senator Barbara Boxer’s Committee on Environment and Public Works will likely produced a rival bill. Senator Jeff Bingaman’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources already has: The American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 passed out of committee two weeks ago. Even if a climate change bill does eventually pass out of the Senate during this Congress, the likelihood that it will contain something capable of sundering the awkward coalition of constituent-attuned Democrats is high; so much effort was put into turning Waxman-Markey into a watered-down joke that almost any improvement is bound to do so. The conference committee charged with reconciling any Senate legislation with the House’s Waxman-Markey bill will be an example of Bismarckian sausage making in the extreme.

In all the excitement over Waxman-Markey, some winners and losers have been largely overlooked. One is Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. For one thing, he didn’t vote against Waxman-Markey, suggesting that he’s not reflexively in denial about the problem of climate change. Of course, he didn’t vote for it, either—that plus his co-sponsorship of a real carbon tax (the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Tax of 2009) back in May suggests that he’s the Republican that environmental groups should go talk to now. The more moderate, northeastern ones are largely in the bag. Once the teetering mess that is Waxman-Markey is hacked to death by a bunch of angry senators, the fight against climate change would benefit from leadership from a heretofore quiet source. Flake could well be that Octavian. Among the big losers are all the liberals who insist that pro-environment opponents of Waxman-Markey are climate-change denialists. Hardly—the denialists are those who insist flimflammery, so long as it is hastily passed into law, makes good public policy. The other big loser is Newt Gingrich, who, despite being recognized previously as a pro-science guy, has made a pretty unholy alliance with the anti-science forces in his party. The simplest way to describe it is that he was against climate change denialism before he was for it.

Meanwhile, in Australia the Senate torpedoed that country’s version of an emissions trading scheme as a vote, expected for last Friday, was put off until at least August 11, if not until after this December’s Copenhagen conference on climate change and possibly even beyond. The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Srassel argued Sunday that this is a sign that climate-change denialists are winning, citing the increasing popularity of a book by one Professor Ian Plimer, a geologist at the University of Adelaide, who argues in his Heaven and Earth that all the science pointing to anthropogenic climate change is bunk. It is not. Unfortunately, his book is. American readers will get to see for themselves in late July when it reaches our shores. If there will be any positive effect of the book’s publication, however, it will be Plimer’s assertions that proponents of anthropogenic climate change are no better than creationists. That, at least, ought to blow some fundamentalist fuses.

Science and Open Society

Nature China announced late last month in a press release that as of June 30, Chinese researchers had exceeded the total number of “high-impact” research papers—those published in the five most important journals in the world—that it published in all of 2008. In some sense, China’s newfound research might weaken the case that scientific success requires an open society. Science does seem to work better, however, when its practitioners are unfettered; as geneticists found during much of Soviet history, unfree systems can provide murderous impediments to scientific progress—thus concerns surrounding the establishment of a new campus of the University of Macau on the mainland and whether Macau’s more liberal laws would pertain. The ultimate decision was that they would. Success at this new university—and indeed, economic success for Macau, which this university expansion is meant to drive—could provide a boost to the cause of intellectual freedom within the country, and not just at privileged locations. With people throughout the whole country allowed to ask questions, who knows how quickly China would overtake the United States in intellectual output?

Green Euroskepticism

The European Food Safety Authority on Tuesday approved renewing permission for farmers to grow a variety of genetically modified corn. Six European countries have independently banned the corn; the most recent, Germany, banned it this past April. The corn is also banned in France, although that law will be rescinded provided that the European Commission, as expected, renews approval for the crop within the European Union.

The announcement led to the expected hand-wringing from environmentalists, including assertions that the EFSA was not in a position to independently judge the safety of the crops, which they seem to assume are inherently dangerous. It’s a rare instance of European leftists sniffing at a decision made in “Brussels,” so to speak (the EFSA headquarters are in Parma, Italy). Unfortunately for environmentalists, there is not good evidence that the GM corn is dangerous, and good evidence that it’s beneficial. One study in the Philippines, for example, found that farmers using Bt corn made more money, killed fewer non-pest insects, and used less pesticide than farmers growing conventional crops. Such findings are not unusual.

That the Bt corn is safe is not an argument against further testing of other genetically modified crops, but it is an argument against blanket bans of the technology. Whether motivated by Luddism, some Rousseauvian idealization of a state of nature, or simply discomfort, continued resistance to genetically modified crops threatens to exacerbate food supply problems and hamstring efforts to deal with future crises, such as climate change. In a century that may prove humanity’s darkest hour, we will need all the tools at our disposal to survive it. Now is not the time to let ignorance or fear stay our hands.

Originally published July 3, 2009

Tags climate energy policy

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