Crude Logic

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
March 30 2001 8:30 PM

Crude Logic

The Bush administration wants to be clear on why it has chosen to antagonize the entire civilized world by abandoning the Kyoto treaty on climate change. President Bush doesn't deny that global warming is a problem, and he isn't averse to addressing the problem. It's just that this particular solution, by exempting developing nations from cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, would make the United States shoulder more than its share of the burden. While such American selflessness may have seemed fine to the woolly-minded one-worlders in the Clinton administration, the steely cost-benefit calculators in the Bush administration won't be so easily bamboozled.

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Yet, elsewhere on the energy/environment front, bamboozlement seems to be the official Bush policy. I refer to the insufficiently scrutinized cost-benefit logic of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a project that actually amounts to a big American giveaway to the rest of the world.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

On the benefit side of the equation: One standard estimate is that the drilling will yield 3.2 billion barrels of oil—a bit less than America consumes in six months. This number is often cited by critics of the project, who consider six months' worth of oil meager reward for a lifetime of environmental damage. But actually, this number vastly exaggerates the benefits accruing to the United States.

After all, there is one seamless world oil market. The benefit of those 3.2 billion extra barrels will be spread across the whole planet in the form of slightly lower prices. Since the United States consumes one fourth of the world's oil, it will get only one fourth of the benefit—in effect, 800 million barrels compared with 2.4 billion for the rest of the world.  Yet the United States is assuming all of the direct environmental costs of the Arctic drilling. How generous! How woolly minded!

So, all told, Americans are getting six weeks', not six months', worth of oil for a lifetime of environmental damage. Yes, I know, the Bush administration quantifies the "environmental damage" side of the equation differently than, say, the Sierra Club. But just about everyone agrees there will be some damage to the ecosystem, and the part of the ecosystem in question is on American soil. So, to phrase the matter in the technical language of game theory: We're getting screwed by the rest of the world.

By the way, the Bush administration's claim that developing nations are "free riders" under the Kyoto accord is. But for present purposes we can leave this issue aside. Even if we stipulate that Kyoto's distribution of burdens is unfair, we are still left with this conclusion: The basic difference between the Kyoto accord and Arctic oil drilling is that with the former the developing world is a free rider, and with the latter the whole non-American world is a free rider. In both cases, the United States is a free ridee.

Puzzling, isn't it? In the Arctic, Bush is magnanimously sacrificing America's national interest while, on the global warming front, he is jealously guarding it. I'm having trouble finding the logical consistency here—unless always doing what American oil companies want qualifies as logical consistency.

Actually, I have nothing against jealously guarding the national interest. I consider myself a one-worlder of the non-woolly-minded variety. While I do believe we're moving toward a system of world governance, I believe we're doing so because, thanks to the non-zero-sum implications of technological evolution, rationally pursuing the national interest will increasingly mean cooperating with other nations. So, I welcome serious questions about whether the Kyoto accord adequately serves American interests.

But, so far, at least, the Bush administration shows no signs of being serious. Though it has rejected the Kyoto treaty, it hasn't said what an acceptable treaty would look like. Is the problem that the administration hasn't had time to find an acceptable alternative? But Bush has been complaining about the Kyoto treaty's unfairness for a year and a half now! In the course of all of his ruminations on the treaty's injustice, didn't Curious George ever once ask an adviser what a just treaty might look like?

Hey, George, I've got an idea that should meet with your approval. It would make a dent—albeit a small dent—in the global-warming problem and would spread the attendant sacrifice well beyond America's borders. Here's how it goes: Don't drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That will keep oil prices slightly higher worldwide and thus dampen the use of this greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel—in developed and developing nations alike! What do you think?

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