TCS Daily

'NAS'ty Report Cuts Kyoto Off at the Knees

By Sallie Baliunas - December 14, 2001 12:00 AM

Nothing has undercut the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon dioxide emission from industrial countries like the latest report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises.

The trite headlines in media coverage hint at the reports nature, e.g., Drastic Shifts in Climate Are Likely, Experts Warn (New York Times). This title is as newsworthy as the banal Blizzard Buries Boston.

In 1981 the great British climate scientist Hubert H. Lamb opened his splendid book, Climate, History and the Modern World, Most generations of mankind in most parts of the world have regarded climate as an unreliable, shifting, fluctuating thing, sometimes offering briefly unforeseen opportunities but at other times bringing disaster by famine, flood, drought or disease not to mention frost, snow and icy winds. That climate changes, sometimes dramatically, is the dominant characteristic of climate, and man has likely recognized it throughout Homo sapiens existence. Lamb traces the inevitably unsurprising effects of severe, rapid climate change on history.

Well-known sharp climate shifts include Greenlands warming from the cold at the end of the last major ice age to nearly present-day temperatures over a decade, the sharp temperature rise of the North Atlantic in the 1920s, the mid-U.S. Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s and the strong late-19th century and early 20th century global warming near the surface of the earth. The NRC report gives more evidence of rapid local climate fluctuations from interesting records of past climate that come from scientific and technological advances.

The NRC lesson that climate sometimes shifts with startling speed and with adverse effects on societies, is not news, as Lamb had summarized it two decades ago. What the NRC adds is speculation about the possibility of climate surprise that may result from global warming as a result of the airs increased carbon dioxide content produced by human activities like fossil fuel burning.

The NRC report tries to pitch new thinking that rapid climate change is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists, and policy-makers. Perhaps those who read just the adrenalinized headlines in the popular media will be surprised at the climates natural ability to deliver sharp shocks. Not only paleoclimate researchers, but also historians, social scientists and paleoanthropologists have certainly appreciated the severe impacts of dramatic global or local climate change on humankind and the environment. One example is the profound growth of the cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens brain during the major ice age about 200,000 years ago, which dramatically increased the thought capacity of the most advanced hominid. During the returned ice age conditions about 100,000 years ago, the brain of H. sapiens again changed it reorganized to its near-modern configuration, further increasing the brains thinking capacity. Both these important alterations occurred as survival responses to the harsh conditions of the ice age climate.

The NRC report admonishes that denying the likelihood or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt events could be costly. Here is where the climates natural adventurousness and the plea to policy makers to recognize it are at odds with the reports suggestion for the U.S. to embrace the Kyoto Protocol.

The report asks for a study of cost-effective steps to, among other things, advance climate forecasting, improve the environmental quality of land, air and water, and minimize impacts of extreme climate events. The report urges low-cost steps that advance adaptation or reduce vulnerability to dramatic climate events by assisting poor countries, which lack both scientific resources and economic infrastructure to reduce their vulnerabilities to potential abrupt climate changes. All are noble goals that have been widely recognized by scientists and decision-makers for decades.

But the new thinking in the report is to embrace a plea to retard climate change, which, the report insists, may minimize the possibility of climate surprise a wholly unreliable speculation. To slow climate change, the report supports reductions in human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that climate simulations forecast may increase the global temperature by about 2.5 C in the next 100 years.

Entwining cuts in human-made greenhouse gases with the goal of saving human lives from climate catastrophes leaves the report muddled. Examples of sharp climate shifts cited in the report are natural events they occurred well before the significant increase in the airs carbon dioxide concentration from human activities of the last several decades. That means that unpredictable, natural climate catastrophes will continue to devastate humans and their environment, and the vulnerability is now, not a century from now.

The call to minimize present and future vulnerability to climate disasters is eviscerated by support of reduction in carbon dioxide emission as embodied in the Kyoto Protocol. The conflict between the goals arises because the Kyoto Protocol, limiting emissions by developed countries, will leave the predicted rise in the airs carbon dioxide content insignificantly slowed. The reason? Developing nations like China and India, which are rapidly becoming the world leaders in carbon dioxide emission, are exempt from the Protocols cuts. However, implementing the Kyoto Protocols reduction in carbon dioxide emission for the U.S. means the U.S. economy will be devastated. The Energy Information Administration of the Department of energy estimates that implementation of the Kyoto Protocol will result in over one million jobs lost and Gross Domestic Product reduction of around 4% per year. That means less, not more, assistance for developing countries that depend on the U.S. as trading partner and aid supplier. The U.S. scientific, technological and economic powers are the essential hope for many of the worlds poor.

Moreover, the best scientific evidence independent measurements of the low layer of air by balloon and satellite borne instruments show that the computer forecasts of the effects of the airs increased carbon dioxide concentration are exaggerating the warming of that layer of air and the surface. The demands of the scientific method underscore uncertainties in the climate models, and their inability to make reliable forecasts, especially for dramatic climate events. The report states, The abrupt changes of the past are not fully explained yet, and climate models typcally underestimate the size, speed, and extent of those changes. Hence, future abrupt changes cannot be predicted with confidence.

With regard to extreme events, hurricanes are one of the most costly and deadly natural weather disasters in the U.S. Will increased carbon dioxide in the air warm the global climate and increase the pattern of destructiveness of hurricanes? The answer is likely no. First, recall that no global climate simulation is capable of working at a scale small enough to model the several-hundred-mile-sized features of storm fronts and hurricanes. Second, should a significantly warmer world occur and, as mentioned above, the best measurements of the air show that the airs added carbon dioxide has been of little global climate impact hurricane researchers theoretically predict fewer, not more, Atlantic hurricanes. After all, as the airs carbon dioxide content increased in the last decades, the number and intensity of hurricanes has not risen. Thus, a major reduction in carbon dioxide emission is not expected to influence hurricane occurrence or intensity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has led the world in improving survivability of hurricanes. In 1900 an intense unnamed hurricane dashed Galveston, Texas, killing over 8,000 who were unaware of the imminent storm. The powerful Hurricane Andrew in 1991 produced enormous property damages owing to the density of expensive property in southern Florida -- but far fewer deaths (23) owing to scientific, technological and societal advances produced by the sustained strength of the U.S. economy. Hurricane Mitch in 1998, hitting poor areas in Central America, caused over 10,000 deaths. Aiding and preparing our neighbors for severe hurricanes is the most cost-effective way to reduce their deadliness.

Sound science tells us that the Kyoto Protocol will not significantly slow the theorized global warming of the climate simulations, and is a climatically empty gesture. Kyoto will certainly reduce U.S. resources necessary to continue world leadership in climate research and adaptation to ongoing, expectable extreme climate changes. Atomizing Americas economy hurts most the disadvantaged of the world, especially in the face of natural, inevitable climate catastrophes.

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