The climate change stampede

Nov. 27, 2000
Are you confused about the 2-week conference that concluded last week in The Hague on climate change?

Are you confused about the 2-week conference that concluded last week in The Hague on climate change? You should be. Like everything else about this issue, the conference was premature. It was, like so many activities related to climate change, part of a stampede to raise taxes and regulate human behavior.

The Sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP-6, focused on implementation of the famous Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (see Watching the World, p. 25). The protocol, named for the city in Japan where it was fashioned, calls on developed countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by various amounts averaging 5.2% from 1990 levels during 2008-12.


COP-6 was premature because implementation can't very well precede ratification, which for the Kyoto Protocol remains in the distance. Only 30 countries have ratified the agreement. All of them are developing nations immunized by the protocol against economic sacrifice. Now that implementation details are at hand, developed countries prone to ratification might follow suit. But others, including the US, remain opposed.

By any standard, making decisions about implementing an agreement that hasn't yet been ratified, or even nearly so, is backwards. But so goes the politics of global warming. And so has it gone since the very beginning.

The UN framework convention, which started the stampede in 1992, set a goal of "stabilization" of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." No one knows what that means.

The best COP-6 planners can do is declare, "Ever-increasing human activity is having a negative effect on our climate." From this observation they extrapolate the increased temperatures, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels central to a frantic global urge to do something about it all.

The extrapolation is extreme. Human activity of course affects the biosphere in which it occurs. How could it not do so? As time goes by, science becomes increasingly able to assess the effects. One such effect is indeed elevation of concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And, yes, by some measures atmospheric warming has occurred during the period of greenhouse gas build-up, although the coincidence isn't perfect.

Disagreement remains, however, over how much, if any, of the possible warming resulted from the gas build-up. And far too little attention goes to the proposition that moderate warming and CO2-enriched air would be good for the climate in terms of its ability to support life. To denounce observed human effects on the climate as automatically negative is recklessly one-sided.

In fact, the politics of climate change seems driven by the quaint notion that humanity must resist and expunge any discernible imprint it makes on the climate. That's unrealistic.

Humanity should of course concern itself with the effects of its activity on its surroundings. It should of course consider the possibility of catastrophic warming. But the issues deserve study much more sophisticated than what they have received so far.

Instead, there's this stampede to act on behalf of the climate before science knows enough about climate mechanics to make accurate predictions, to tax and regulate without knowing whether the taxes and regulation will have the intended climatic results, and to implement a hastily drawn protocol before any of the seriously affected countries have ratified it.


Because the governments so eager to implement the Kyoto Protocol want to impose the essential carbon taxes and seize the money before science casts any more doubt on the validity of the response. That's why.

Backward logic

Promoters of Kyoto prescriptions insist that growing numbers of scientists support their position. Yet the only position they have to support is that science can detect a human influence on the climate, not what the nature of that influence is, not whether it is on balance good or bad, and not how it might change or be changed in the future.

The logic is backward. The process is backward. People asked to incur costs and surrender freedoms to climatic objectives deserve reasonable assurance that the goals are achievable. With climate change, the assurance isn't in sight. Until it is, exercises like COP-6 amount only to politics. No one should mistake them for science.