TCS Daily

What's in Store at Next Week's Global Warming Conference

By James K. Glassman - October 25, 2001 12:00 AM

Delegates from 178 countries meet next week for the third time in less than a year to work out more details of the rules and bureaucratic apparatus for the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 global warming treaty.

The big question is the same one that preoccupied the last meeting, held in Bonn in July: Will President Bush, who rejected Kyoto as "fatally flawed" in March, now offer a compromise? Advocates of the treaty think there is a chance he will, mainly in return for Europeans joining the U.S. recently in a multilateral anti-terror coalition. But the White House has shown no signs of putting a new proposal on the table, and an about-face would be a major surprise.

Typical is the view of Christian Egenhofer, an energy expert at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank. "One thing is clear," he said. "The United States will not re-join the Kyoto Protocol. This has not changed since September 11."

Meeting at the Hague in November, Europeans rejected the Clinton administration's requests for changes that would allow the U.S. to meet its treaty obligations by trading emission rights and by developing sinks, including new forests, to trap greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide, a byproduct of combustion of all fossil fuels but also a vital for plant growth.

The Hague conference collapsed in disarray and a follow-up was held in Bonn, to which the Bush administration sent a high-level delegation, headed by Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. She is expected to appear as well at the Seventh Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (or COP 7), which runs from Oct. 29 to Nov. 9 in Marrakech, Morocco. But, as in July, the U.S. delegation is far more likely to observe than to offer alternatives.

The Bush administration has held a clear position for the past seven months - that too little is known about the nature of climate change to enact Kyoto-style regulations that would cripple the U.S. economy. A study by the Energy Department during the Clinton administration determined that implementing Kyoto would reduce U.S. economic output by 3 percent to 4 percent annually, a cost of $300 billion to $400 billion; other studies found that the average family would pay $2,500 a year more for energy.

In August 1997, four months before Vice President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. Senate voted, 95-0, to approve a resolution stating that it would reject any climate-change treaty that did "serious harm" to the U.S. economy or that exempted "developing" countries such as China, the number-two emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S., and India, number-five. Kyoto did both. In addition, the fine print makes it far less expensive for Europe to comply with the treaty's terms than for the United States.

Nonetheless, European hopes have been raised as a result of the war against terrorism. Earlier this month, the London Evening Standard, in an article headlined, "Bush Set to Make U-Turn Over Kyoto," reported, "It seems that where [Deputy British Prime Minister] John Prescott failed at last November's climate change negotiations, Osama Bin Laden may have succeeded. It now looks increasingly likely that George Bush will make a stunning U-turn and ratify the Kyoto Agreement following talks with [Prime Minister] Tony Blair and other world leaders in the wake of 11 September."

The newspaper offered no details, and, while the idea of such a bargain makes a good story, there is no evidence that the administration will change its position.

First, leaders like Secretary of State Colin Powell are so busy fighting terrorism that it is unlikely they will turn their attention to climate change. Second, the war has shifted U.S. priorities away from immediate environmental concerns, like those expressed in the Kyoto treaty, and toward energy independence and production. Third, U.S. officials do not view European support of the anti-terror war as a "favor" to this country; instead, defeating terror is at least as helpful to Europe as to the United States.

"I don't have any indication at this point the administration is spending considerable time assessing its global warming position," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust and a Kyoto advocate, quoted recently in The Washington Post. But Clapp thinks it is significant that, after his visit last month to Washington, Blair raised concerns about U.S. opposition in a speech in Britain.

Meanwhile, however, Green-leaning politicians in Europe are beginning to deal with defections on their own continent. Under pressure from business, the European Commission recently watered down draft rules on emissions reductions and trading. In addition, a Danish professor, Bjorn Lomborg, who describes himself as a left-wing former Greenpeace member, has stirred up Europe with a book titled The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press) that rejects the Kyoto approach as more politics than science - and argues that it is especially damaging to poor nations.

The Marrakech conference - meeting in an Arab kingdom during a time of heightened concern about terrorism - has difficult work to accomplish. It must approve a package of 15 draft decisions on implementing the treaty, including thorny matters involving compliance. The treaty will go into effect when developed countries that represent at least 55 percent of total 1990 CO2 emissions have ratified it. So far, not a single major industrial country has yet ratified Kyoto. The only officially "developed" nation to do so has been Romania. Europeans are understandably reluctant to go ahead with a treaty that will put them at an economic disadvantage to a non-participating United States - especially since they had designed the treaty to do the opposite.

But even without Kyoto, two dozen U.S. states and cities, from Vermont to Oregon, have begun taking steps to reduce emissions on their own. According to a recent report, in August, six New England states and five eastern Canadian provinces signed an agreement to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 and by 10 percent below that level by 2020.

The basic facts about climate change have not changed. Temperatures at the surface of the earth have increased by one degree Fahrenheit over the past century in a pattern of warming, cooling, then warming again. Satellite observations just above the earth, however, show no warming at all since the late 1970s.

Warming so far has probably been beneficial. What many scientists worry about is what will happen over the next century. Their concern is based on the output of computer models, but those models are too new to be tested. In fact, as time has gone by, research has shown the models to be less and less accurate. A new report in the Journal of Geophysical Research, for example, found that there is a 54 percent chance that climate sensitivity lies outside the boundaries of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Centigrade, as previously announced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

One key unresolved question is the role - if any - of human activity in heating the planet. Some scientists, including Sallie Baliunas of Harvard (who is also co-host of, see a link between solar activity, now reaching a cyclical peak, and warming on earth. Other major areas of uncertainty involve clouds and water vapor, whose influence on temperature is even greater than that of greenhouse gases.

If Marrakech is a typical climate-change conference, these scientific issues won't be discussed. The focus will be politics, economics and rhetoric.

TCS Daily Archives