Kyoto Down the Drain? What Next?

Published January 1, 2004

There were momentous happenings at the October 2003 World Climate Conference in Moscow. World-shaking, one might say.

After haggling about the minutiae of the Kyoto Protocol for the past six years, regarding just how to control emissions of carbon dioxide from energy generation, the treaty may go down the drain in one big swoosh.

Of course, Kyoto supporters won’t let the Kyoto process itself die. Not if the United Nations bureaucracy can help it, plus the delegates from 180 nations who were so looking forward to carefree, taxpayer-supported careers attending climate conferences in fancy locations. Expect to see the launch of a successor, the “son of Kyoto”– tough-sounding but equally ineffective.

But it will be a whole new ballgame. Most significant about the Moscow meeting is the choice of words by Russian politicians. They refer to Kyoto as “scientifically flawed”–not just “fatally flawed” as George W. Bush called it. It is a real breakthrough because it makes skepticism about the underlying science respectable–and indeed encourages scientists to speak out and question many of the assertions that have long been taken for granted by the press and the public.

The hype started with the first of the science assessments by the UN-IPCC in 1990 that claimed observations and greenhouse theory to be “broadly consistent.” It morphed into the enigmatic (and ultimately meaningless) claim that the “balance of evidence” supports a human influence on climate warming, and to the most recent assertion of the 2001 Third Assessment that “new evidence” affirms this.

Careful reviewers of the three IPCC reports have noticed the “evidence” has changed from report to report–but never the conclusions. Pretty suspicious. So we can now ask out loud: What new evidence? And is it really supported by actual observations?

From the very first, the IPCC report summaries (the only part read by outsiders) have carefully ignored all evidence contrary to their perennial conclusions. The litany has been constant: That the climate is currently warming; that the cause is human-emitted greenhouse gases; and that a major warming (implied to be catastrophic) will soon be upon us.

The world community is very fortunate that rational science has emerged in Russia on the question of climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. There never has been a more anti-human proposition than that government should regulate all energy production and consumption in the name of some distant, vague fear of a climate disaster from the use of fossil fuels. Yet that is where we were headed until President Bush and now the Russians intervened.

The official skepticism, both scientific and economic, should have some impacts also on other nations. The Nordic countries may well ponder whether a warming–if indeed it were to happen–is so bad. Canadians may ask the same; incoming premier Paul Martin has already questioned Kyoto and the haste with which it was adopted by Ottawa last year.

So maybe what happened in Moscow will start a giant exodus from Kyoto. Then the world community can finally move on to pay attention to real problems.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the nonprofit Science & Environmental Policy Project in Arlington Virginia. His email address is [email protected].