Will the United Nations Chill Out on Climate Change?

Published March 1, 2009

Ten thousand people from 86 countries descended upon Poznan, Poland in December for yet another United Nations meeting on climate change.

It was the annual confab of the nations that signed the original United Nations climate treaty in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That instrument gave rise to the infamous 1996 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, easily the greatest failure in the history of environmental diplomacy.

The purpose of the Poznan meeting was to work out some type of framework that goes “beyond Kyoto.” After completely failing in its first attempt to limit carbon dioxide emissions internationally, the U.N. is expected to propose reductions even greater than those Kyoto required.

Kyoto failed because it was too expensive. Anything “beyond” it will cost that much more, and is even less likely to succeed.

Warming Has Stopped

Before proposing an even harsher treaty, the U.N. ought to pay attention to its own climate science. It regularly publishes temperature histories from its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in the late 1980s with the express charge of finding a scientific basis for a global climate treaty.

Since Kyoto in December 1996, a very funny thing has happened to global temperatures: IPCC data clearly show that warming has stopped, even though its computer models said such a thing could not happen.

According to the IPCC, the world reached its high-temperature mark in 1998, thanks to a big “El Niño,” which is a temporary warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that occurs once or twice a decade. El Niño years are usually followed by one or two relatively cold years, as occurred in 1999 and 2000. No one knows what really causes these cycles, but they have been going on sporadically for millennia.

Wait a minute. Starting an argument about global warming in 1998 is a bit unfair. After all, that’s starting off with a very hot temperature, followed by two relatively cool years.

Fine. Take those years out of the record and there’s still no statistically significant warming between 1997 and 2007. When a scientist tells you that some trend is not “significant,” he or she is saying that it cannot mathematically be distinguished from no trend whatsoever.

Future Warming Also on Hold

More importantly, there’s not going to be any significant warming trend for some time.

Assume, magically, that temperatures begin to warm in 2009 at the rate they were warming before the mid-1990s and that they continue to warm at that rate. The world has to warm in such a fashion through 2020 before there’s a significant trend re-established in the data.

That’s a full quarter-century before any discernible trend of global warming could emerge.

That, however, is not what the U.N.’s own models show.

The IPCC’s latest compendium on climate, from 2007, used 21 different climate models to forecast the future, and subjected each to different “storylines” (in the U.N.’s parlance) for global emissions of carbon dioxide. They are there for the world to see, on page 763 of the volume on climate science. Not one of them predicts a quarter-century without warming—even under a scenario in which emissions increase more slowly than they already are.

U.N.’s Models Failed

The U.N.’s own climate models have failed barely a year after they were made public. They have demonstrated a remarkable inability even to “predict” the present. Will 10,000 people in Poznan somehow ignore this?

They shouldn’t. Instead they should be thankful. The lack of recent and future warming almost certainly means that the ultimate warming of this century is going to be quite modest. And they should keep in mind that expensive policies to fight a modest climate change will only worsen the cold snap currently affecting the global economy.

Patrick J. Michaels ([email protected]) is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know. A longer version of this article first appeared on National Review Online on December 9, 2008. Reprinted with permission.