Representatives of some 160 nations are gathered in Kyoto, Japan, this week to negotiate an international treaty to control emissions of greenhouse gases. While the summit has all the trappings of a substantive event, the gathering in Kyoto is more an exercise in public relations than in serious statecraft. Hot air, rather than cold reason, will dominate the conference and political sleight of hand will be its product.
That's because, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (the United Nation's body of experts devoted to the study of global warming and known as the IPCC), even the most aggressive and costly proposals on the table this week would shave only a fraction of a degree off temperature increases projected by computer models for the year 2100. To achieve those emissions reductions, each American would have to pay an additional $1,000-$3,000 annually in higher energy prices. Such proposals would, according to Yale economist and sometime Clinton adviser William Nordhaus, take us back to the days of semipermanent energy crises like those of the 1970s. Both greenhouse alarmists and skeptics agree that actually preventing the global warming projected by computer models would require the world to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by between 60 percent and 80 percent. Only by virtually abandoning the use of oil, gas and coal could we achieve such reductions. President Clinton's assurances about "free lunch" climate change policies notwithstanding, nobody is proposing any real policy to prevent climate change because no one wants to usher in a permanent global depression.
The idea, then, is to get the world to commit to a slow-motion control policy, one that would ease us into higher energy costs, a reordered industrial world and, as National Public Radio reporter Richard Harris puts it, "a whole new society" structured around less energy use.
But if the computer models are correct about global climate change (the data thus far are inconclusive), what choice do we have? Isn't it prudent to hedge our bets now with a control strategy in order to avoid far more costly economic crash planning later? Well, no. All indications are that the "cure" for global warming is far worse than the "disease" of rising temperatures.
First, only about 2 percent of America's economy is sensitive to weather conditions. No matter how ruinous climate change might be, it couldn't possibly have a serious long-term impact on the United States. Even the most alarmist projections of ocean rise (about 3 feet or so) are trivial. If Amsterdam could figure out a way to hold back an even larger sea rise hundreds of years ago, it's clear a wealthier and more technologically advanced United States could counter a 3-foot rise. Foreign aid to help poorer countries adopt would be far less expensive than control policies.
Second, it's not altogether clear that a warmer world would be a less habitable world. A temperature rise of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (the median computer-predicted result of a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the next 100 years) was exactly what occurred about a thousand years ago (A.D. 850-1300) in a period climatologists refer to as "the little climate optimum" (note that they don't refer to it as "the little climate hell"). The result? A longer growing season, rapid economic development, a minor cultural renaissance, an expansion of fertile crop and forestland and a decrease in mortality rates.
Since the data indicate that the small amount of warming we have detected over the last 100 years has largely been confined to winter evenings in the far northern latitudes, we have every reason - both empirical and theoretical - to believe warming would be a benign, not a deleterious, event.
There are still open questions about how much if anything man has had to do with the slight warming detected over the past 100 years and how much warming might eventually occur (the IPCC estimates range from insignificant to moderately significant). The IPCC report itself states it will be another decade or so before scientists will know for certain. So why not wait? Nature magazine reported last year that waiting 20 years for better scientific information before acting will only cost us .36 degree Fahrenheit, at worst, over the next 100 years.
In the face of this kind of uncertainty, the best "insurance policy" we could buy is one that increases the amount of wealth at society's disposal to handle whatever problems might occur in the decades to come. Impoverishing society today to avoid a very uncertain problem tomorrow would harm, not help, future generations.