Global Warming: a Status Report

Published November 1, 2002

The ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-9) convenes in New Delhi in November 2002 to discuss implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Where do things stand? The U.S. and Australia have opted out. Canada is split; its federal government plans to submit Kyoto for ratification but there is strong opposition. Russia will ratify—after having extracted all the economic concessions it can from Europe. Japan is in but there will be no enforcement. In Europe and everywhere else, CO2 emissions are rising and proposed policy steps (ecotaxes and enforced targets of uneconomic renewables) are not likely to work.

Meanwhile, in India, business proceeds as usual. Coal contributes 72 percent of electric power generation (vs. 52 percent in the U.S.). Indian coal’s poor quality, with 5 to 50 percent ash and inadequate pollution control, creates local health hazards from toxic trace elements (As, Cd, Cr, Ni, Co, Cu, and Sb) and high levels of radioactivity. Moreover, the coal’s poor quality creates regional pollution that contributes to the Asian Brown Cloud, and may even cause climate disturbances.

A “Safe” Level of Global Warming?

In a recent Science article supporting the Kyoto Protocol, O’Neill and Oppenheimer discuss the ultimate objective for climate policy. They propose that a temperature rise of 1-2º C would constitute a “safe” level of global warming by estimating it would be tolerable to corals and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). There are several ways to respond.

First, their figure is a welcome reassurance that warming from increased greenhouse gases (GHG) levels will unlikely ever pose a problem. Since the existing increase in GH forcing has not produced a measurable temperature rise of the atmosphere, contrary to model expectations, it is highly unlikely that a future rise will exceed 1ºC under any reasonable projection of population and fossil-fuel use.

Second, we know that natural temperature increases in recent millennia have been greater than 2ºC—without harmful consequences. In the case of coral reefs, analyses of ocean bottom sediments from the tropical North Atlantic show extremely rapid temperature increases (within decades) of up to 3ºC within the past 3,000 years. Even higher values occurred during the Holocene Climate Optimum between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. For the WAIS, geological data show a more or less steady regression of the grounding line since the last glacial maximum of about 18,000 BC. It seems little affected by temperature fluctuations shorter than millennial. With melting continuing at the same rate, the ice sheet will disappear in about 5,000 years, which is near the upper limit proposed by O’Neill and Oppenheimer.

Finally, the ultimate objective for climate policy is spelled out in Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC): “… to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The treaty does not specify this level, or indeed whether it should be greater or lower than the present one. Note that Article 2 expresses concern about the climate system rather than ecological systems, economic activity, or human health.

I would argue that the drafters of the FCCC were chiefly concerned that a higher level of GHG might cause climate instabilities. This difficult scientific question has not been adequately addressed in IPCC reports. Geological evidence shows greater climate stability during the warmer Holocene than during the last glaciation. Further, climate variability was generally greater during the Little Ice Age than during recent warmer periods. While one cannot conclude that a future warming of the climate will increase stability further, it does seem more probable.

President George W. Bush stated on June 11, 2001 that the Kyoto emission targets “were arbitrary and not based on science” since “no one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level….” Indeed, the IPCC has never responded to the 1997 request for guidance on this issue by the chairman of the Kyoto negotiations.

Letter to the Editor of Science submitted, with references, on July 2, 2002 but not accepted for publication.

S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, shares his thoughts on environment and climate news stories in “The Week that Was,” a regular column available on the Web at