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HOT TOPIC

Kyoto's Dead Hand
Even signatories are giving up on their emissions targets.

Saturday, December 10, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Global gabfests can be fun, which may explain the paradox of the 12-day U.N. conference on climate change that ended yesterday in Montreal. On the one hand, the conferees spelled out the fine print that will make the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 156 countries, "fully operational," according to conference chairman Stephane Dion.

On the other hand, even those who support radical cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions are realizing that the Kyoto Protocol is a failed instrument for achieving their goals. "The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge," says British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He can say that again. India and China, which are exempt from Kyoto's emissions cuts, have no plans to submit to those mandates any time soon, though China is the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The U.S. has also consistently rejected Kyoto. This has been true throughout the Bush years, but it was equally so during the Clinton ones. In 1997, the U.S. Senate adopted the Byrd-Hagel Resolution by 95-0, urging the Clinton Administration not to sign any climate-change protocol that "would result in serious harm to the economy." In 1998 Al Gore signed the Protocol. Yet President Clinton, who was in Montreal yesterday to scold the Bush Administration for its inaction, never submitted it to the Senate.

And then there is the performance of Kyoto's signatories in meeting their own targets. Kyoto requires developed nations to bring their total greenhouse-gas emissions to 5% below their 1990 levels by 2012. Yet in 2003, emissions were above the 1990 baseline by more than 10% in Italy and Japan, more than 20% in Ireland and Canada, and more than 40% in Spain.

Germany and Britain have met their Kyoto targets, but this is the result of one-time events: the collapse of British coal and the shuttering of much of the former East Germany's industrial base. Given Germany's anemic economy and Britain's reduced growth forecasts, the appetite in either country for costly environmental virtue is not likely to increase.

Nor should it. For even as the Montreal crowd treats man-made global warming as established fact, the science behind the long-term forecasts remains ambiguous and sketchy, while the benefits of "doing something about it" are by no means clear.

Consider a few recent developments. In 2003, Canadian researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick demonstrated that the "hockey-stick" analysis--a key element of global-warming dogma that purports to demonstrate that global temperatures held steady for centuries until rising sharply in the last 100 years--was riddled with "collation errors, unjustifiable truncation or extrapolation of source data, obsolete data," and so on. The Canadians found that the Medieval warm period had indeed occurred, suggesting that periods of warming and cooling were natural trends unrelated to the number of SUVs on the road.

In 2004, a conference of leading economists met in Copenhagen to prioritize the world's environmental needs, and they put global warming at the bottom of the list. "The benefits [of dealing with climate change] are far into the future and the substantial costs are up front and immediate," wrote Nobelist Douglass North. "Given the uncertainties associated with both the projections and the consequences, climate change cannot compete with other urgent issues we confront."

More recently, scientists have been grappling with data distortions caused by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. That eruption initially caused ocean temperatures to cool; now temperatures are rising as the "Pinatubo Effect" unwinds and distorts the long-term trend data. Scientists have also noted weakenings in Atlantic currents that move cold waters south and warm waters north, leading to predictions that Britain may experience Siberia-like temperatures in the coming decades. Whatever else that is, it isn't "warming."

The lesson we draw from all of this is that the uncertainties in climate forecasting remain huge. And given the costly and fraudulent scares we have just lived through--mad-cow disease, genetically modified foods--the End Is Nigh crowd should be held to a higher standard of proof than it has been before. The needs of the world's poor and sick are too pressing to squander limited economic resources on what could be another false alarm.

Fortunately, there's another game in another town. Next month, the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, India and Australia--collectively accounting for nearly half the world's population--will meet in Sydney to launch the Asia-Pacific partnership. Unlike Kyoto, which pits developing countries against developed ones, the Partnership is a collaboration to develop cleaner energy resources.

Unlike Kyoto, too, it is a voluntary partnership that seeks to address environmental issues through economic growth and technology, and not by targets and command-and-control mechanisms. Some of the technological fixes--zero-emissions power plants, efficient hydrogen fuel cells--may be decades away. Then again, so are the real-world consequences of global warming, if they materialize at all.

So many politicians and activists have committed so much to their faith in man-made global warming that events like Montreal will continue regardless of the evidence. But anyone who cares seriously about the needs of the poor--and of the environment--needs to get out from under Kyoto's dead hand.

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