Commentary Magazine


Too Darn Hot?

Natives of Hawaii, inured by more than a thousand years of island life to the vagaries of the weather and the seas, have a somewhat elliptical saying: “the mists are those that know of a storm upon the water.” It can be taken to mean that those nearest to something are the first to become aware of what is happening to it. Using similar reasoning, perhaps, many environmentalists today regard the small islands that dot the Pacific as a sort of planetary weathervane, outcrops of flora and fauna that are sensitive indicators of large-scale shifts in the ecological balance of the earth. If these islands are already beginning to buckle under the stresses imposed on the planet by human activity, it is a sign that we must act quickly lest catastrophe result.

An alarming presentation of this argument can be found in Rising Waters: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands, an hour-long documentary that aired on PBS this past April on Earth Day. Rising Waters paints a picture of island nations on the veritable brink of ruin: homes destroyed in the wake of storms or threatened by eroding shorelines, churchyards and cropfields inundated by the rising sea, and shoals of once-vivid coral bleached by overheated waters. On camera, fishermen complain of poor hauls; a Samoan environmentalist laments the looming disappearance of his cultural heritage; Teburoro Tito, the president of tiny Kiribati, speaks glumly of the possibility that the entire populace of his cluster of atolls will have to be relocated.

What is causing this potentially immense disruption? Rising Waters mentions several factors, including seasonal weather fluctuations and overdevelopment, but ultimately it places most of the blame on a long chain of processes at the end of which is: global warming. The nature of this menace is well known and has been widely discussed. Increases in the industrial emission of gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), it is said, have caused the atmosphere to absorb infrared radiation that would otherwise be reflected back into outer space. The resulting “greenhouse effect” lifts the average temperature of the earth’s surface. Among the many consequences are rising sea levels caused by the melting of the polar ice caps and increases in the frequency and intensity of storm activity.

Though Rising Waters offers the disclaimer that the earth’s climate is a complex and somewhat unpredictable system—“we don’t know how it behaves completely,” says Fred MacKenzie, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii—its overarching message is that unregulated CO2 emissions have already begun to heat the planet to dangerous levels. To forestall further warming, we must cut those emissions globally by as much as 80 percent over the next several decades. Alas, as Rising Waters notes with a hint of impending doom, the prospects for such a cut are not auspicious.

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On this last point, the documentary is certainly correct. Talks in the Hague on implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at reducing the CO2 emissions of industrial nations to pre-1990 levels by the year 2012, collapsed in December, in the last month of Bill Clinton’s presidency. By mid-March, the Bush administration had announced it would not seek to regulate the CO2 emissions of power plants, provoking an outcry from environmentalists and angering European leaders who maintain (in the words of Dutch prime minister Wim Kok) that the United States is acting “irresponsibly.” Two weeks later, President Bush declared that it made “no sense” for the United States to pursue implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. European governments, positively livid, dispatched an emergency delegation to Washington, but to no avail; they now plan to assemble an international coalition aimed at “shaming” the United States into reconsidering its stance. Another round of talks on Kyoto will be held in Bonn this July, and the conflict over global warming is certain to deepen in the months and years ahead.

Against this backdrop, Rising Waters can only serve to underscore the now almost incessant warnings about the disaster that awaits us if we fail to change our profligate energy habits. Global warming has already been blamed for ecological hazards ranging in scale from disruptions in the migration patterns of butterflies and declining amphibian populations to extreme weather events, droughts, and food shortages in farflung portions of the globe. And the dangers that lie ahead are said to be far worse, if not horrific: famine brought on by widespread agricultural failure, an increase in epidemics of infectious disease, even mass extinctions of animal and human populations.

If anything remotely resembling this scenario is likely, it is not hard to see why so many Europeans, and with them many Americans, are apoplectic over President Bush’s determination to scrap the Kyoto deal, the fruit of years of intense multinational discussions among lawmakers, economists, scientists, and environmentalists. Senator Joseph Lieberman has even promised a congressional investigation of the President’s environmental decisions, declaring that they “ignore the public interest and defy common sense.”

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Is Lieberman right? There are indeed many things about the global-warming debate that “ignore the public interest and defy common sense.” But the decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol is not one of them.

In a sense, the decision was hardly even newsworthy. The agreement has been effectively dead—at least as far as the United States is concerned—since shortly after it was negotiated in 1997. For no sooner did Clinton’s negotiators return from Japan than the Senate voted 95-0 to oppose ratification of any treaty that would impose significant burdens on our national economy and that lacked “specific scheduled commitments” for emissions reductions in what are now known as “developing” countries. As Kyoto has never been amended to address these concerns, it is perplexing that any policymaker could have continued to regard the accord as viable.

Indeed, far more inscrutable than President Bush’s final rejection of Kyoto is the vast amount of rhetorical and diplomatic effort that has been and continues to be expended on the agreement’s behalf. Even apart from the unanimous vote in the Senate, there are serious questions about whether the provisions of the treaty could ever be implemented and enforced, and therefore about whether it really represents a workable mechanism for managing climate change.

From its very inception, as the analyst David G. Victor shows in a new monograph,1 the Kyoto Protocol was a product of diplomatic wishful thinking. For one thing, the limits it called for on greenhouse gas emissions were draconian. Thus, by 2012 the United States would have been required to reduce CO2 emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels—a modest-sounding target until one considers that by the end of 1999, emissions were already 12 percent above 1990 levels and were continuing to rise. Compliance with Kyoto would therefore have required a likely cut of as much as 30 percent by the time the treaty took effect in 2008. Not only would this cost hundreds of billions of dollars in GDP but, because most greenhouse gases are released in the course of burning fossil fuels for energy, cutbacks on such a scale would deal a major blow to significant sectors of the U.S. economy—particularly electricity generation, which is already struggling mightily to keep pace with demand.

The agreement was also exceedingly inequitable. Russia, for example, would have been required only to freeze its emissions at 1990 levels; but because the Russian economy has contracted sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its emissions are already far below target, and are unlikely to recover by 2008. Though it remains a significant industrial polluter, Moscow would thus be required to do absolutely nothing. South Korea and Mexico, now formally considered “developed” countries (as defined by membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), have for their part also not agreed to curtail emissions.

At the same time, Kyoto sets no targets at all for the developing nations, though these countries will account for half the world’s greenhouse gases by 2020. The two largest such nations, India and China, have refused outright to accept any limits on their emissions output.

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In short, the Kyoto Protocol demands that the United States hobble its economy with drastic cuts in energy production, while Russia, India, China, and other nations enjoy the freedom to grow untrammeled. To deal with this gross imbalance, a number of observers have proposed amending the agreement. One proposal involves altering the way emissions are accounted for—for example, by permitting industrialized countries to earn “credits” if they maintain or create carbon sinks, i.e., forest and soil zones that absorb CO2. Another alternative would be to allow trading, whereby industrialized countries could buy the right to emit carbon dioxide from those nations whose emissions are below targeted levels.

Both of these ideas have their attractions for the United States, but they also entail immense practical and political difficulties. On the positive side, the U.S. might offset its Kyoto obligations by counting carbon sinks that resulted from intentional changes in land-use policy. If, in addition, it were permissible to count those resulting from unintentional changes (like the spontaneous reforestation of abandoned agricultural lands), we might no longer be a net emitter. But an amendment of this sort would almost certainly prove unacceptable to Europe and Japan, which, unlike the U.S., have limited capacity to plant new forests. A more fundamental problem is that the Kyoto Protocol provides no standard definitions, methods, or data for quantifying the absorption of CO2 by trees and soils, making it easy for nations to cheat by claiming credit for carbon sinks that are short-lived or even nonexistent.

Emissions trading is beset with its own difficulties. The present terms of the Kyoto Protocol would seem to award countries with low baselines—like Russia—a windfall in fictitious credits, the sale of which would result in no reduction in global emissions whatsoever. David Victor has correctly spelled out the political implications of any such arrangement: “No Western legislature will ratify a deal that merely enriches Russia and Ukraine while doing nothing to control emissions and slow global warming.”

If the most widely discussed ways of amending the Kyoto agreement are infeasible, what then? Policy analysts like Victor continue to hold out hope that the Bush administration will develop a coherent approach to global warming—perhaps a modified trading system combined with international taxes on CO2 emissions and supplemented by investments in new technology. As for the Bush administration, the President himself has spoken of global warming as a “serious problem,” and the U.S. will be participating in the upcoming talks in Bonn with the hope of finding a workable alternative to Kyoto.

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The operative assumption here, of course, is that man-made climate change is a real phenomenon, and that averting catastrophe requires doing something about it, and soon. As this assumption has increasingly come to be taken for granted, disputing it has become commensurately perilous, especially for politicians. According to a 1997 poll taken for the World Wildlife Federation, two-thirds of American voters regard global warming as a “serious threat” and support an international agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, even if this comes at some economic cost. A full three-quarters endorse the view that “the only scientists who do not believe global warming is happening are paid by big oil, coal, and gas companies to find the results that will protect business interests.” Only 15 percent accept the statement that “scientists disagree among themselves” about the extent of the coming danger.

Clearly, climate change is no longer an issue up for grabs. Even if the public could be persuaded that the Kyoto Protocol would be disastrous for the U.S. economy and is the result of junk diplomacy, it would be far harder for a politician to make the case that the research behind Kyoto is junk science, too. But much of it is.

Let us return for a moment to those Pacific islands. It is undeniable that they have been buffeted by a series of severe storms in the past decade, accompanied by unusually intense episodes of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, a periodic fluctuation in sea temperature in the tropical Pacific that has been observed since the last century. What is not clear is whether these have anything to do with global warming.

Storm activity in the Pacific varies from year to year; 1998 saw an above-average incidence of tropical storms, while 1997 was comparatively quiet. The cause of this variation remains unknown. The ENSO phenomenon is not well understood, and it is not predicted by any model of climate change. A United Nations body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has rightly observed that while many small island states fear that “global warming will lead to changes in the character and pattern of tropical cyclones (i.e., hurricanes and typhoons),” this fear is not confirmed by the most recent research. Rather, “model projections suggest no clear trend, so it is not possible to state whether the frequency, intensity, or distribution of tropical storms and cyclones will change.”

And what of rising waters? In 1980, climatologists predicted that global warming would melt the polar icecaps, causing sea levels to rise more than 25 feet over the course of the next century. Such an event would undoubtedly be disastrous not only for the Pacific islands but also for densely populated coastal regions in all parts of the world.

Fortunately for those of us in Boston, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, the deluge failed even to begin to materialize. According to the latest data, the polar icecaps do not appear to be melting at all. The 2001 IPCC report discerns “no significant trends” in the extent of Antarctic sea-ice since 1978, when reliable satellite measurements began to be taken; nor, at the other pole, is there evidence from satellite records that the air above the Arctic has warmed substantially.

With the polar caps essentially intact, it does not come as a surprise that sea levels have risen only a paltry 2 millimeters per year in the mid-1990′s—roughly the same rate observed over the past 100 years. Even the gloomiest doomsayers have been compelled to jettison the dire forecasts put forward in 1980. Under the worst-case scenario now envisioned by the IPCC, the oceans should rise no more than a foot over the next century, not nearly enough to pose a major threat. And this forecast is in turn based on the assumption that sea levels will increase by approximately 5 millimeters per year, give or take 3 millimeters—in other words, the rate of rise may not change at all.

As for the climate itself, despite the alarmed rhetoric from so many quarters, we do not know for certain that it is even changing in significant ways. It is an established fact that the earth’s climate has warmed slightly over the past century. Average temperatures near the surface have risen since 1900 and are now probably higher than they have been at any time in the past 600 to 1,000 years. But that statement more or less exhausts the scientific consensus. On every other important question—what the major causes of global warming are, what its effects will be, whether we should try to prevent it and, if so, how—there is considerable uncertainty.

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Most of what we “know” about the earth’s future is derived from enormously sophisticated computer models that utilize millions of parameters to simulate the earth’s climate. These models are still far from reliable. The editors of Nature, arguably the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, pointed out on March 15 that “the accuracy of any model depends significantly on the quality of the underlying raw data.” But the quality of the data being used for climate prediction, they go on to state, is “patchy.” For example, it is not at all easy to measure the amount of sunlight absorbed by the atmosphere or reflected by its surface back into space—and yet this one key parameter alone might (or might not) account for six times the amount of energy that would be added to the climate system by the doubling of atmospheric CO2. Similar uncertainties attend other crucial variables like the impact of differing degrees of cloud cover and water vapor.

Given the room for error, it should come as no surprise that climate-prediction models have racked up an exceedingly poor track record over the years. According to those models, the average global temperature should have increased by at least 1 degree centigrade since the beginning of the 20th century, when industrial emissions of greenhouse gases first began to rise. But the best available measurements indicate that the average global temperature has increased by only 0.5 degrees in 100 years, and much of that increase occurred before 1940—too early in the century, in other words, to have been caused by a growth in CO2 levels.

Contrary to the simulations, moreover, the marginal uptick in surface temperatures in the years since 1970 has not been accompanied by warming of the lower atmosphere (as we know from satellite data). A pair of recent papers in the journal Science attempts to account for this discrepancy by locating the missing heat in the oceans, a “discovery” trumpeted by the media as yet another blow to those who remain skeptical of global warming. But this was not a discovery at all, and was not based on any finding that whatever warming may have occurred has been caused by human activity. Rather, it was merely the product of “improved” models, which have their own “improved” assumptions and their own set of poorly understood parameters.

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In the face of such scientific shell-games, and in the face of the huge costs the United States has been asked to incur to combat a problem that may or may not exist, President Bush was certainly right to pull the plug on the Kyoto Protocol. But whether he will be able to stand firm against the torrent of criticism that has been unleashed against him remains an open question. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Bush administration’s decision to abandon Kyoto “will have massively destructive consequences for the earth and its people.” Although the IPCC has specifically rejected any direct linkage between today’s local environmental perturbations and global warming, the Sierra Club is instructing its members that the apocalypse is upon us now, in the form of “heat waves, droughts, coastal flooding, and malaria outbreaks.”

There are more narrowly partisan interests at play as well. “Democrats See Gold in Environment,” ran the headline of a recent New York Times story describing how Bush’s environmental decisions have galvanized activists in the Democratic party. Indeed, reports the Times, some party officials are positively “gleeful” at the political opportunities now opening up. One such official is evidently Senator Lieberman. Assuming Al Gore’s mantle as the party’s leading spokesman on matters environmental, Lieberman has called the decision to abandon Kyoto “flabbergasting,” and is now invoking the specter of “sea levels [that] could swell up to 35 feet, potentially submerging millions of homes and coastal property.”

That this is the same Joseph Lieberman who in 1997 joined 94 other Senators in voting to denounce the Kyoto Protocol suggests that when it comes to global warming we are indeed facing a rising tide—of hysteria, mixed with sheer political cynicism. As against these twin forces, it may seem hopelessly naïve to suggest that we would do better to focus on phasing out those greenhouse gases that can be eliminated at relatively low cost, like sulfur hexafluoride and perfluorocarbons, while adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward CO2, secure in the knowledge that advances in technology and in the accuracy of prediction will allow us to address climate change more effectively and more cheaply in the future. Naïve it may be, but at present there is no basis in scientific evidence for more drastic action. All that is required is a politician tough enough and brave enough to say so.

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Footnotes

1 The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming. Princeton University Press, 178 pp., $19.95.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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