TCS Daily

It's No Time to Go Wobbly on Kyoto

By James K. Glassman - May 11, 2001 12:00 AM

Is George W. Bush going soft on Kyoto? Two months ago, in a decision marked by clarity, good sense and not a little courage, the president said he was dropping the climate-change protocol, which was signed by Al Gore in 1997 against the express wishes of 95 senators. Since the rejection, Mr. Bush has become the target of vituperation at home and abroad. That's hardly a surprise.

But now there are troubling signs that he may be responding to the criticism by weakening his opposition to an agreement that was rash, lopsided and based on unsettled science.

Wavering White House

Over the past few weeks, a group of scientists has been called in to brief administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, on climate change. That group is reportedly dominated by individuals who believe man-made global warming is a serious problem requiring an expensive policy response. According to the New York Times, at least: "There is a growing realization at the White House that the blunt rejection of the treaty may have caused more problems than it solved."

And James Pinkerton, a former official in the previous Bush administration with close ties to this one, reported Monday in Newsday: "The buzz in Washington is that Bush, having suffered from six weeks of withering criticism since he junked the Kyoto treaty, is going to come back with a compromise in his forthcoming energy plan," expected next week. An environmental newsletter even reports that a global-warming enthusiast -- or, more concisely, calamatologist -- from a leading green organization may get an important White House post.

In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to stiffen the spine of the president's father, who was wavering on a decision to halt Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. "George," she said, "this is no time to go wobbly." A similar admonition may be necessary now for the son. He needs to stand by his original Kyoto decision. It was good science, good economics and, ultimately, it will be good politics.

Mr. Bush didn't really kill Kyoto anyway. He simply offered the benediction. Kyoto died last fall, when European negotiators at the Hague refused to compromise on a treaty that would have had a devastating effect on the U.S. economy. President Clinton's own Energy Department estimated that reducing carbon-dioxide emissions to meet Kyoto's target would cut gross domestic product by 4.2%, or more than $400 billion a year. A separate study by WEFA Inc., a highly regarded economic consulting firm, found that Kyoto would "reduce the average annual household income by $2700 [and] cost 2.4 million U.S. jobs."

While Kyoto was written to favor Europe, it's doubtful that cynical European politicians ever wanted to approve it anyway (it took three years for the first "developed" country, Romania, to ratify the treaty); they simply wanted to appease their greens at no cost. Now, the Europeans have their whipping boy. And, boy, have they whipped! "I think this decision is completely mad," said Noel Mamer, a French parliamentarian, in a typical comment. "It is a reason for more isolation for America."

Some say a key reason the U.S. lost a seat last week on the United Nations Human Rights Commission (while slave-owning Sudan got one) was Mr. Bush's rejection of Kyoto. And multicausal celebrity activists like Bianca Jagger and Annie Lennox have gotten into the act, this week launching a boycott of Esso products in Europe because ExxonMobil, the parent, was a big contributor to the Bush campaign and "the power behind the Bush throne."

But Mr. Bush doesn't need ExxonMobil to tell him that Kyoto is a foolish idea. For starters, the treaty is wildly skewed against the U.S. Against congressional objections, the protocol exempts developing nations -- including eight of the 20 largest emitters of greenhouse gases -- from its constraints. So what will U.S. manufacturers do if forced to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 30%? Move to China or Brazil, of course. No wonder union leaders like Jerry Strelick, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557 in Pittsburgh, oppose Kyoto.

Also, the treaty disingenuously sets national limits on emissions of greenhouse gases -- not net emissions. A 1998 article in Science magazine by a group of Princeton scholars indicates that the U.S. is a net reducer of carbon dioxide because of our extensive forests and farmland. The CO2 pumped out by cars and factories is sucked up by these green sinks. Meanwhile, paved-over Europe is, overwhelmingly, a net emitter of CO2.

The main problem with Kyoto, however, is that it is a drastic solution to a problem that may not exist. Scientists know very little about global warming -- only that the earth has become hotter by one-half degree Celsius over the past century. But even that insignificant heating has occurred in fits and starts -- a warming in the early part of the century, then a cooling from the 1940s to 1970s, then another warming. That intermediate cooling led, predictably, to warnings by calamatologists (some of whom are now warming enthusiasts) of an imminent "new ice age." Newsweek reported at the time on a proposed solution to global cooling: "melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot." In a few years, Kyoto may sound just as farcical.

As the National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has reported: "We do not understand the climate system well enough to clarify the causes and likelihoods of rapid or abrupt climate changes."

If 20th-century warming has been caused by human-generated greenhouse gases, then why hasn't the earth heated up consistently, as CO2-emitting manufacturing and transportation activities have increased? It is generally agreed that the earth has been hotter in the past -- during the Middle Ages, for example, long before SUVs were invented. Strong evidence is emerging, in fact, that the earth's heating is cyclical, and that the prime mover in warming is the magnetic activity of the sun, as Sallie Baliunas, a respected Harvard astrophysicist who is also deputy director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, has been finding in her research.

In discussions of global warming, such expert voices of dissent are rarely heard. Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, tells me flatly that "the NRC report was suppressed by the media." And a new study by the Media Research Center reviewed 51 stories on global warming by five cable and broadcast news programs and found "only seven references to the existence of global warming skeptics." Six of those were on Fox News Channel and the seventh was a reference on CNN by Mr. Bush himself to "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge."

Rush to Judgment

And it is incomplete. I have been talking to some of the thousands (literally, see of scientists who oppose the rush to judgment on global warming. For example, Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology at MIT, told me that his work casts serious doubt on climate-change models that project big temperature increases because clouds trap hot air. In fact, he says, clouds may act as a "thermostat" to cool the earth when it gets too hot.

At this stage, the science is too unsettled to impose a solution that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars -- and, as many of its advocates agree, may not work anyway. Mr. Bush was right to reject Kyoto, to clear the decks for a more dispassionate, less political approach to the science of climate change. What is needed now are cooler heads, less hot air and, please, no wobbling.

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