Just when record heat and punishing storms are shriveling climate-change denial like ears of corn in a Dust Bowl-style drought, along comes news of a United Nations fiasco that was supposed to reduce heat-trapping emissions but has instead put more of them into the air — while putting huge profits into the pockets of those who gamed the system.
The New York Times reports that 19 companies, mostly in India and China, made tens of millions of dollars by producing more of a heat-trapping gas that's a byproduct of manufacturing air-conditioning coolants than they normally would have produced. By destroying the waste gas, they collected credits worth millions of dollars and tradeable on a global market. Possible buyers include European power plants trying to meet greenhouse-gas standards or companies voluntarily offsetting their carbon footprints.
This is perfect fodder for those who say Americans need not alter our energy-wasteful ways because any reduction in U.S. emissions would be more than offset by China, India and the rest of the developing world.
As unwelcome as change naturally is, this defeatist view is wrong on a number of counts.
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For one, low-lying parts of the developing world are desperate for a global agreement on curbing heat-trapping emissions, because rising seas caused by climate change are threatening to inundate them.
Also, while the U.S. talks about pursuing an "all of the above" energy strategy, China really is.
The world's second-largest economy is trying to balance the demands of a huge and largely poor population with the imperatives of climate change by building new coal-fired plants while also, unlike the U.S., going all-out to develop renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources.
Europe has been deeply engaged for a decade in limiting heat-trapping emissions and has made progress.
What's missing from efforts to control climate change is the United States. It would be premature to give up as long as the U.S. is still on the sidelines.
Instead of denying and dawdling, the U.S. should lead, as both political parties' standard-bearers promised to do just four years ago.
Last month was the hottest in the continental U.S. since record-keeping began in 1895. The sizzling days and hot nights are part of a longer-term warming trend, said Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Climate scientists remain divided over whether this summer's heat and storms are direct results of human-caused global warming. They are united in saying extreme weather, including famine-inducing droughts, will become the norm if we fail to reduce heat-trapping emissions.
The lesson of the U.N. fiasco is not that trying to curb global warming is an inevitable boondoggle. The lesson is that elaborate credit-trading programs are not the best approach.
The surest way to reduce emissions is to tax them.
Businesses will invent ways to avoid the tax by cutting emissions, and they will create new technologies and jobs in the process.
The U.N. and European Union have taken steps to curb the abuses and unintended consequences reported by the Times, but the clampdown should have come sooner.
Green energy programs seem to be held to higher ethical standards than traditionally subsidized and politically connected fossil fuel industries. (Think Solyndra.) But that's OK if being judged harder ends up earning green energy more credibility.