Commentary

Lessons of Kyoto

Later this week, President Bush hosts a summit of the world’s major economies on energy and climate change. The purpose is to hammer out some type of agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The summit will take place after a United Nations conference on the same subject.

Kyoto and the United Nations will be a hard act to follow, because Kyoto, a U.N. product, was an abject failure. If every nation lived up to its “commitment” under the Protocol, emissions from the industrialized nations would drop 5 percent below the level they were at in 1990. According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, since then, global emissions have increased by 27 percent.

Further, even if it were successfully implemented, Kyoto would have done nothing about global warming. The Kyoto treaty, climatologist Tom M. L. Wigley wrote in Geophysical Research Letters in 1998, would reduce the earth’s surface temperature by an unmeasureable 0.14°F per 50 years. This has been common knowledge since its inception.

In climate change, apparently nothing succeeds like failure.

Hopefully, the Bush summiteers will have learned the lessons of Kyoto: Substantial emissions reductions at this time are not achievable without intolerable costs. Further, the developing economies, which had no commitments under Kyoto, are going to continue to resist anything that slows their growth, and their growth is going to be powered by fossil fuels.

China signaled as much earlier this month, when it entered into an agreement with Evergreen Energy, a Denver corporation whose technology makes coal power more economical.

Bush’s summit takes place in a climate of hysteria, fueled by unsupportable science fictions. James Hansen, NASA’s chief climatologist, has warned us for at least two years now that if we don’t do something substantial about emissions in ten years, much of Greenland’s ice is “likely” to be shed, raising sea levels “at least six meters” (20 feet) as soon as 2100.

You can bet that the Greenland story will be repeated during the summit. Bush’s response — and that of the assembled nations — should be that this is nonsense. From 3,000 to 9,000 years ago — six millennia — Greenland was warmer than today, and from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago in particular, it was much warmer.

How do we know? Nowdays Eurasia’s forests peter out into treeless tundra a hundred or more miles from the Arctic ocean. But back then, thanks to the preservative power of the arctic, we know that the forest extended all the way to the sea. Even the land extended further north, as sea levels were lower. Glen MacDonald, a geographer at UCLA, has noted that during much of this period, summer temperatures in the Eurasian arctic were between 4 and 13°F warmer than what he calls “modern.” Greenland’s ice melts only in the summer.

The only way that the Arctic could become this warm, MacDonald wrote, is with an “extreme Arctic penetration of warm North Atlantic waters.” There’s only one route that this water can take to get to the Arctic Ocean — by passing between Greenland and Europe.

Obviously, Greenland’s ice sheets didn’t collapse into the sea.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which bills itself as the consensus of scientists (for whatever that is worth) recently published a computer model for Greenland. It loses half of its ice in approximately 900 years. But the model assumes that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — the major human contributor to warming — is three times higher than it is today and stays there forever. That’s abject nonsense, too. First, it’s going to be very difficult to ever burn enough fuel to get the concentration that high, and second, it is very bizarre indeed to project that society will be powered by fossil fuels in, say, 2600 A.D.

For what it’s worth, the IPCC’s projection for global sea-level rise by 2100, under the average projection for carbon dioxide growth, is between 8 and 19 inches — hardly Hansen’s 20-foot possibility!

Having dispensed with the inevitable hysteria, the Bush summit ought to get down to technological and economic reality. The most foolish course of action (and the one that will be most in demand in Washington) is a crash program to reduce emissions right now. The most prudent alternative is encouragement of capital development.

That’s because it is only investment that can actually foster future technological changes. Take that capital away and the more efficient future fades further into a less efficient one. That means defusing hysteria and countering it with the reality that protecting the environment depends on preserving our economic strength.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.