U.S. dodges bullet at Hague

Published February 1, 2001

Last issue, we speculated that the timing of two important articles in Nature magazine was no accident. Appearing just before the big United Nations confab at the Hague, Nature argued that so-called “sequestration” of carbon dioxide by forestation might in fact make global warming worse.

Those articles were in direct contravention of a large body of scientific research. In fact, researchers such as Song-Miao Fan at Princeton have demonstrated that North American forests may in fact capture more carbon than is emitted during the industrial activity of the United States and Canada.

Waved in their faces

There’s no doubt that the new Nature articles were waved in the face of U.S. negotiators, who first proposed that we be allowed to salt away about half of our annual emissions reduction in trees and farms. The Kyoto Protocol requires that we reduce our net release of carbon dioxide and methane by approximately 33 percent below where it is projected to be a mere nine years from now. The original sequestration proposal therefore still meant a one-sixth (one-half of 33 percent) reduction in emissions, which itself would be very costly.

The longer the Hague meeting went on, the more the United States capitulated, finally settling on a mere 25 percent of the initial sequestration proposal. That was negotiated in a last-minute phone call between Bill Clinton and Great Britain’s Tony Blair. The resulting reduction in U.S. emissions would then work out to about 29 percent by the period 2008-2012, something that simply could not be accomplished without sweeping energy taxes and job displacement.

No dice, said the European Union (EU). Citing figures ginned up by Greenpeace, the EU—and especially Germany’s Jurgen Trittin and France’s Dominique Voynet—argued sequestration was no solution. Voynet re-created a long-dormant schism between the English Channel and Europe by arguing that Britain, which agreed with the U.S. position, “had conceded too much to America.”

In reality, the United States had just agreed to commit itself to economic miasma. In rejecting that out of “principle,” Voynet managed to insult both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who had just handed Europe’s Greens the object of their fervent desire: America’s economy on a platter.

Perhaps Trittin and Voynet, both members of the Green Party in their respective countries, don’t realize that here in the states, said party just polled a lusty total of 3 percent of the Presidential vote. Their ideas simply do not enjoy widespread popular support.

At any rate, the chief U.S. negotiator, Frank Loy, is said to be livid. First he got a pie thrown in his face, to which he replied he would rather have “an agreement”–a response that merits last-place in the “riposte to humiliation” sweepstakes. But our spies in the Hague say his special venom is reserved not for the EU, but for Greenpeace, who apparently scratch-padded the calculations for them. Greenpeace USA’s head, John Passacantando, may wind up judged by history as the man who singlehandedly destroyed the Kyoto Protocol.

After the Hague

Consider the landscape after the Hague. First, it will leak out over the next several months that Clinton darned-near gave away the economy by agreeing that 88 percent of our total cut for the years 2008-2012 would come from reductions in energy use. The Bush administration would never negotiate such a sellout.

What will Bush do? Look for a massive program for sequestration and not much with regard to direct emissions cuts. He has already said he would not commit the nation to Kyoto, but he added that global warming may be an important problem.

The easy and politically obvious solution is to propose that large, vocal communities—such as American agriculture—be credited for carbon-saving improvements (like low-till agriculture) that they might have made anyway. And Bush then claims credit for being the first world leader to substantially reduce net emissions while creating little economic damage.

So, unwittingly, the EU has drawn a line in the sand from which the United States is likely to retreat. That is not what Nature, with its two well-timed articles, had in mind.

In fact, after the Hague, Nature itself seems to have changed its tune. In its post-Hague editorial, the editors opined about “growing scientific evidence that the contribution of forestry and farming practices to the global carbon budget is of sufficient magnitude to offset some of the carbon released by burning fossil fuels.”

The end of the scare

But science still does not seem to matter in the long run when it comes to global warming. Later in its editorial, what well may be the most influential science journal in the world said that “managing carbon sinks [such as forests and agriculture] may be only a short-term measure. In the long run, the only solution is a substantial reduction in overall greenhouse-gas emissions, and clearly one cannot wait for scientific certainty before taking significant steps in that direction.”

We submit that Nature is dead wrong here. The massive opportunity that the EU blew, along with the American political landscape, virtually guarantees a large-scale sequestration program and very little emissions reductions in the next decade.

Within that decade, we confidently predict, science will be forced to recognize that the warming is probably small, and that the social consequences are minor compared with the benefits of economic growth.

That must be the case as people continue to adapt and prosper, while the temperature nudges up at the same rate it has for several decades, warming the winters more than the summers and creating a greener planet with longer growing seasons. We continue to put more plant food (CO2) in the air, growing crops in greater abundance and lengthening our lives. All that politically acceptable sequestered carbon can only make things even greener.

What will occur is the opposite of what Nature may have intended to create. Too bad the EU listened to Greenpeace.

According to Nature magazine, University of Virginia environmental sciences professor Patrick J. Michaels is probably the nation’s most popular lecturer on the subject of climate change. Michaels is coauthor of The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air About Global Warming.


Fan, S., et al., 1998. A Large Terrestrial Carbon Sink in North America implied by atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide data and models. Science, 282, 442-443.