Kyoto Pact Goes Where Scientists Fear to Tread

Published November 1, 1998

Proponents of the Kyoto treaty on climate change have failed in their basic responsibility: To prove, based on present knowledge, that the benefits of implementing the treaty outweigh its costs, a prominent free-market environmentalist contends.

Negotiated in an atmosphere of unproven scientific extrapolations and uncalculated economic costs, the Kyoto treaty is “a head-them-off-at-the-pass approach, but we don’t which pass to head for,” argues Ken Green, director of Environmental Studies at the Los Angeles- based Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI). “We don’t know enough yet. Are there more uncertainties than certainties?”

Citing weak computer models that focus on regional climatic developments and short-term temperature readings, Green makes his case in a recent RPPI policy brief, “Evaluating the Kyoto Approach to Climate Change.”

If Kyoto is to produce any meaningful benefits, policymakers must look at the big picture instead of developing worst case-scenarios and making simplistic predictions based on monthly temperature changes. Such an approach is as foolish as taking someone’s pulse for two minutes and attempting to calculate trends in their lifetime heart rate, Green said.

“You would see the same long-term relevance that our short series of temperature records has over the history of the earth,” he said.

“The most advocates of Kyoto can say is if the Earth is warming, and if the measures advocated in Kyoto can have the desired impact, the benefits might be significant. Unfortunately, empirical evidence simply isn’t there to justify such a gamble . . .”

Rather than remain flexible in addressing the many uncharted areas of climate change, Kyoto supporters are “jumping the gun” in thinking that their proposed solutions for reducing risks of anticipated environmental damage will benefit everyone equally. On the contrary, risk-reduction affects different people in different ways.

“Just as (auto) airbags pose dangers to some people while saving others, no risk-reduction activity has total pure effects,” said Green. “We now know that . . . the airbag requirement created new risks for a significant part of the population (smaller women) and posed a particular threat to children, the physically fragile and the elderly.”

Critics of the Kyoto pact note that the United States, which is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gasses, stands to be the biggest loser under the terms of the agreement, because its economic growth will be slowed while the economies of other countries, many of which will be under less stringent restrictions, are expected to flourish.

At best, Green argues, full compliance with Kyoto would mean a lower standard of living for many Americans, while a worst-case scenario suggests the premature deaths of as many as 22,000 people annually. This dark outlook is based on the “optimistic” assumption that Kyoto would reduce Gross Domestic Product by $60 billion to $100 billion a year, money that could be better spent elsewhere.

“If we divert (tens of billions of dollars) out of the economy to Kyoto, what is it you’re doing to implement other risk-reduction programs?” he said. “We should be able to show benefits of using money in other areas, such as the improvement of flight safety.”

Any risk-reduction strategy should be linked to income levels, because mental and physical health are determined by economic security, according to Green, who notes that individuals rocked by economic dislocation are less likely to suffer depression if they have large families and many friends and those who do not have a strong social network.

“Likewise, we know that people’s safety is related to people’s income. Those with less income are proportionately less able to take the safety measures that higher-income levels can. Families with higher income levels can better withstand short-term health problems than those with less income. Families with higher incomes eat higher quality foods, drive safer cars, live in safer neighborhoods, train their children for safer jobs and so on.”

Flexibility, Green emphasizes, is the key to determining any net benefits from Kyoto.

“Resilience should be the default strategy, and it is very different from ‘do nothing,’ because the latter is really never an option.

“Research simply will not stop, because science doesn’t stop . . . people are now, and always have been concerned with the dangers of changing climate, and with building devices to help them anticipate change.”

Kyoto’s proponents must be able to demonstrate, based on present knowledge, that traditional market-driven responses are no longer sufficient when assessing risk because any alternative approach threatens individual choice and personal freedom.