Reality Check Foils Kyoto

Published September 1, 2000

Remember those industry-sponsored ads about the Kyoto Protocol that said, “It’s not global and it won’t work”?

Well, it looks like they “worked”! And they didn’t even question the science behind the forecasts of disastrous global warming, which is clearly also very fair game.

Greens merely laughed. Especially when the industry ads raised the spectre of gasoline going to $2 per gallon! One counter-ad, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, portrayed anyone who thought gas prices would get that high as a used-car salesman.

Kyoto mandates that we reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by 7 percent below 1990 levels in the period that begins in 2008, just 7.47 years from now. Since 1990, our greenhouse gas emissions have gone up about 14 percent, and we’ll be around 23 percent over in 2008 if we just continue on as we are.

But that mandate to reduce by 7 percent below where we were a decade ago means we’ll have to somehow drop our energy consumption in 2008 by 30 percent, which averages to a reduction of more than 4 percent per year between now and then.

Fat chance. Now global warming luminaries such as Eileen Claussen from the Pew Center on Climate Change and Roger Pielke Jr. of the U.S National Center for Atmospheric Research are weighing in that the tools of industry were right after all. It’s not global and it won’t work (and the science isn’t there).

Claussen, speaking before the Royal Institute of International Affairs June 20 in a speech titled “Kyoto—The Best we can do or Fatally Flawed,” cites three reasons why the Protocol simply isn’t going to happen as currently written: 1) The participants won’t meet their obligations; 2) The Protocol simply doesn’t have enough political support in the main producer nation (us) to enter into force of law; and 3) It lacks that support because it doesn’t apply around the world. According to Claussen:

By adhering to unrealistic targets that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet, we provide the Protocol’s opponents (and there are many of them) with additional ammunition in their effort to shoot the treaty down. We all know that the economic arguments that have been used in the United States to reduce support for the Protocol are based on the costs of complying with the Kyoto target and timetable. The more unrealistic the target is—considering the short timetable for action—the more costly it will be to meet it. And the more ammunition the treaty’s opponents will have in order to work against it. . . . The other main stumbling block . . . revolves around the issue of developing country commitments. Is it fair, people ask, for the United States to have to abide by the Kyoto targets while competitors such as China, India, and Brazil get a quote-unquote free ride?

Claussen might just as well have played the industry television ads! She then observed that the U.S. Congress is reluctant to enact the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol without Senate passage. That seems logical to some observers, as attempts to reduce emissions must raise the price of fuel to even less politically acceptable levels than where they already are. But the real problem, she notes, probably remains with the Protocol itself:

I wonder if it is the treaty’s targets and timetable that are the real issue here—if the sheer impracticality of meeting the targets according to the Kyoto schedule, together with the potential costs involved, are fueling U.S. resentment of the fact that there are no targets for the developing world.

What about the future? The next “Conference of the Parties” to Kyoto takes place in the Hague, right around election time in the United States. Claussen argues the meeting should “correct the flaws in the Kyoto framework. . . . This means putting the issue of targets and timetables aside while we configure the framework in such a way that it makes sense.”

On this side of the pond, in a remarkably complementary article in Atlantic Monthly, Daniel Sarewitz of Columbia University and Roger Pielke Jr. of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research conclude Kyoto will fail because of “political and technical realities.” They write: “The only nations likely to achieve the emissions commitments set under Kyoto are those, like Russia and Ukraine, whose economies are in ruins.”

Pielke’s presence is important in the same sense that Claussen’s is. Claussen’s employer, the Pew Foundation, has nakedly advocated the Kyoto Protocol for years. And Pielke used to be a staffer for the late George Brown of California, a prominent Democrat who, when the party was in the majority, chaired the House Science Committee and was profoundly concerned about global warming.

With Sarewitz, Pielke contends the financial impact of weather and climate variability will continue to increase at a pace that dwarfs whatever Kyoto might do for climate. They claim 1998’s Hurricane Mitch—a pretty modest storm hitting a poor country—is proof enough that infrastructure and wealth determine whether or not daily weather is a matter of life and death.

In their words: “The horrific toll of Hurricane Mitch reflected not an unprecedented climatic event but a level of exposure typical in developing countries where dense and rapidly increasing populations live in environmentally degraded conditions.” File the recent tragedies in Venezuela and Mozambique in the same bin.

But Sarewitz and Pielke go way beyond the obvious failure of Kyoto to sum up global warming science. “Each new scientific finding only raises new questions—dooming the debate to be pointless spiral,” they write. (We would argue that this is hardly pointless: A “draw” in the global warming debate is likely to be a “win” for economies that otherwise would be harmed by impossible policies.)

Throughout the history of this issue, environmentalists have attempted to paint their global warming concerns as “science-based.” But Sarewitz and Pielke note greenhouse science can “turn around and bite you.” They cite a recent Science article showing Antarctica has been melting for thousands of years, noting “sea-level rise is a problem, but anthropogenic global warming is not the only culprit, and reducing emissions cannot be the only solution.”

They also point to a familiar (to us) conundrum: Estimates of future emissions are extremely unreliable, and other human factors may influence climate as much as greenhouse emissions. They quote Thomas Stholgren of the U.S. Geological Survey: “The effects of land use practices on regional climate may overshadow larger-scale temperature changes commonly associated with increases in carbon dioxide.”

In summarizing their views of global warming science, Sarewitz and Pielke conclude: “Our own prediction is that increasingly complex mathematical models that delve ever more deeply into the intricacies and the uncertainties of climate will only hinder political action.”

In combination, Claussen’s speech and the Atlantic Monthly article highlight what we have been writing for years: Kyoto is not global, it won’t work, it won’t affect climate change, and the science is far too contradictory to support a drastic change in our lives for the dubious “benefit” of attempting to fight global warming.


Claussen, E., 2000. Kyoto—The Best we can do, or Fatally Flawed? Speech before the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.

Sarewitz, D., and R. Pielke Jr., 2000. Breaking the Global Warming Gridlock. Atlantic Monthly, July, 55-64.