Commentary

United Nations, Administration Battle Over Climate Chief

A huge battle has broken out over the reappointment of the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Dr. Robert Watson. The Bush administration wants him gone because he’s opposed to just about every one of their climate change policies. Greens and their friends want him retained for the same reason. All of this is going to be decided this week in Geneva.

Everyone knows the drill. Greens claim that Dr. Watson is merely a scientist being persecuted for searching the truth, while others say that he has been overtly pursuing a political agenda while hiding under the cloak of the U.N.’s chief climate scientist. The administration proposes replacing Watson, who is a household saint in green domiciles, with Indian engineer Rajendra Pachauri. He, in fact, may curry more favor with poor nations that feel they will ultimately have to share an undue burden from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Is all of this unfair to Watson? You decide. Everyone agrees that Bob Watson is an impressively hard and diligent worker — he even stands out in workaholic Washington. He acquired this reputation as a graduate student in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Maryland, and later as the chief scientist for NASA’s stratospheric ozone program.

It was there that a different side of Watson began to appear. In 1992 he breathlessly announced to a globally televised press conference that stratospheric ozone depletion was “much worse than we thought” because there was an imminent ozone hole in formation over the North Polar region. Heretofore the misnamed “hole” (largely an Antarctic depletion centered around a six-week period when the sun is very low and can’t sunburn anyone before they freeze to death) was confined to far southern latitudes.

Within a day, then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) announced an “ozone hole over Kennebunkport,” the home of President George H. Bush. Watson, as NASA’s chief scientist, knew that an ozone hole over Maine was a physical impossibility. But he remained silent as Gore stampeded the Senate into a 96-0 vote to ban chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants. In fact, there never was an ozone hole. NASA and Watson decided to rile up the press based on a few aircraft measurements of stratospheric chlorine, which sometimes presage an ozone fall. But while the Senate was being stampeded, additional data were pouring in showing that it was all a false (or an intentional?) alarm. Watson stood mum.

Perhaps as a reward, Watson was appointed associate director of President Clinton’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, a platform he used to espouse his views on global warming, which were much more dire than many others. Eventually he left OSTP for the World Bank, where he gave the Washington trade journal “Global Change” a revealing interview. “Global Change” wrote:

“In his work for the federal government and now the World Bank, Watson retains his involvement with science but can also influence directly and strongly the social issues that matter to him. [Said Watson:] “I find it an order of magnitude more rewarding, much [italics in original] more rewarding.”

He also became head of the IPCC, where he was a vocal supporter of the Clinton administration. He told “Global Change” that “The [Clinton] administration’s position on the environment [is] absolutely admirable.” As for the then-Republican Congress, he said, “Rather than moving things forward constructively, we’ve [?] been trying to make sure that the thing’s we’ve been doing were not undone.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who President Bush is going to retain for his science. But it gets worse.

In preparation for the December 1997 U.N. meeting in Kyoto, where the infamous global warming protocol was adopted, the “Wall Street Journal’s” John Fialka interviewed Watson. The doctor expressed displeasure with the proclivity of Americans to question their government, particularly on environmental matters.

“Watson,” wrote Fialka, “finds the difference between American and Europeans, who are more concerned about global warming, puzzling.” Watson himself was quoted next: “In Germany, when the legislature and government determine there’s a problem, the public and industry will follow that decision. The opposite seems true in the U.S. Unless you have industry and the public behind you, you find the government, especially the [Republican] Congress, is unwilling to lead.”

All of this is very little science and very much politics. Watson is praising the Clinton administration, criticizing the Republican Congress, and implying that Americans are ignorant because they don’t follow their government like good Germans — no offense to Germans intended.

But what really irked the Bush administration was Watson’s behavior in Shanghai on Jan. 20, 2001. There the IPCC adopted its latest compendium on climate change. Watson approved the insertion of a new “storyline” (that’s what the IPCC now calls its future projections) that predicted an absurd warming of 11°F for this century. Those of us in the scientific community who had reviewed the document never saw this outlandish projection because it was inserted after our peer review. John Christy, a scientist from the University of Alabama who developed the satellite temperature history (which shows very little warming), told a subsequent global warming hearing chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), “this is one forecast that isn’t going to happen”.

It’s worth noting that the U.N. made 244 other temperature forecasts, all of them cooler than 11°F. But Watson pointed to the hottest one, telling the press that it “adds impetus for governments to find ways to live up to their commitments [under the Kyoto Protocol] to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” Then in a remarkable insult to the American people, Watson said, “A country like China has done more, in my opinion, than a country like the United States to move forward in economic development while remaining environmentally sensitive.” This is nonsense. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Embassy in China reported that emissions had dropped “little, if at all,” which should have been obvious to Watson, who could see the opaque air of Shanghai.

To add injury, Watson closed the Shanghai IPCC meeting at almost exactly the same time Bush took the oath of office. Watson knew that if the meeting lapsed over, President Bush could have withdrawn approval of the new climate report.

Finally, a few months later, early in the Bush administration, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice announced, “Kyoto is Dead.” Concurrently, Watson gave a presentation to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. His 44 Power Point images are available online, and the 37th is entitled “The Challenge of Mitigation.” It lists as its first priority, “The near-term challenge is to achieve the Kyoto targets.”

All of this is plain to see. Governments choose the head of the IPCC, and the current head is clearly at odds with his current government. It’s elementary, Dr. Watson.

Patrick J. Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.