SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Chemical Eye on "Cap and Trade"
by Preston MacDougall


July 22, 2008

On the economic frontline of the carbon wars, a lot of political hot air has been expended over the cap-and-trade strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But is it all just smoke and mirrors?

For instance, the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec have just signed a formal agreement that puts a new cap on greenhouse gas emissions, but allows green industries to "trade" their unused quotas with industries that are still a bit brownish.

I hope this encourages creative research into alternative energy sources and chemical processes that reduce waste products, but if it is anything like the Kyoto Protocol it should set off smoke alarms.

jpg Cap and Trade


Why? You may recall that when the US refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, we were subjected to blasts of hot air from our neighbors to the North who did sign it. So what has happened in the meantime? Of the industrialized countries that have not come close to meeting their Kyoto targets, Canada tops the list. In fact the Canadian government admitted that since Kyoto went into effect, per capita emissions of the monitored gases have gone up in Canada, and by more than they did in the US!

Maybe politicians can't make any sense of data unless it comes from a pollster, or maybe they just forgot to put batteries in their smoke alarms.

In any case, the failure of the Kyoto Protocol isn't the reason for my skepticism about the cap-and-trade strategy. It is the failure of the War on Drugs.

If that sounds like a non sequitur to you, you must not listen to much rap music. You see, after decades of draconian drug laws, cap-and-trade has been the recipe for "success" - but for the wrong side.

In today's urban slang, to "cap" someone is to shoot them with a handgun. It is troubling enough that such immoral language has rooted itself in popular culture, but the most disturbing fact is that this violent crime is increasingly a horrific reality.

Whether it be in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, or on the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, or even in rural Tipton County, Tennessee, when a drug dealer is confronted with enforcement of drug laws their strategy is the same: cap the authority and continue to trade.

Both the US military and the Afghan government have identified the same primary threat to democracy in Afghanistan. It is not Al Qaeda, nor is it the Taliban. It is the illegal opium trade. You do not have to minimize the evils of drug abuse to question the war on drugs. You only have to argue that the horrific consequences of the drug laws might actually be worse.

Kandahar may be half a world away, but Americans who live near the Mexican border know that chaotic violence is at our doorstep. Entire towns in Northern Mexico have erupted in drug-related violence. In some places, the drug dealers are killing off the local police, while in others the federal agents are battling with thoroughly corrupted police.

When the war on drugs has hardened frontlines that pierce the institutions that are charged with enforcing laws, perhaps it is time to examine the laws themselves.

I am advocating re-examination of our drug laws for two general reasons. First, I value all personal freedoms, even though I would not choose to use drugs that are currently illegal. Secondly, I have faith in education. If students can be taught the quantum mechanical mechanisms by which CO2 absorbs and emits radiation, then they can be taught not to abuse drugs.

I also have a specific reason for advocating controlled drug markets, as opposed to illegal ones. His name was Calvin Jenks. I never met this Tennessee State Trooper, but before he married his high school sweetheart I taught her Honors Chemistry and served on the committee that evaluated her honors thesis research in microbiology. She was most deserving of the slot she was awarded at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. It broke my heart to learn that her husband, while making a routine traffic stop in rural Tennessee, was killed by drug dealers who were on their way to make a trade in Nashville.

In the carbon wars, whether our target is carbon dioxide or psycho-active carbon-containing compounds, instead of demonizing inanimate molecules, let's tax them.


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Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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Ketchikan, Alaska