TCS Daily

The Structure of a Scientific Revolution

By Hans H.J. Labohm - August 11, 2003 12:00 AM

The Kyoto Treaty provides for mandatory reductions of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, because these are believed to cause man-made global warming with all kinds of harmful effects. It has been signed and/or ratified by a majority of developed countries, but the U.S. and Australia have decided not to join Kyoto. Russia, whose participation is necessary for exceeding the threshold of 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries as a precondition for Kyoto's entry into force, has not yet made up its mind.


But the scientific basis of Kyoto is controversial. The so-called climate skeptics have exposed many flaws of the man-made global warming paradigm. The notion of paradigm is above all connected with Thomas Kuhn's classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962), which has been called "a landmark in intellectual history." A paradigm is an overarching theoretical structure that is believed by scientists to explain the majority of a system's behavior.


Many real world observations contradict the man-made global warming paradigm. Satellite temperature measurements, which are far more accurate than those of surface-based stations, do not show any significant global warming. In Kuhn's jargon, these contradictions are called "anomalies." If the number and seriousness of these anomalies exceed a certain critical threshold, the paradigm in question will collapse and scientists will have to look for alternative paradigms. A change of paradigm could be compared with a gestalt switch, an alternative way of perceiving the world. Or, in the words of Kuhn: "What were ducks in the scientist's world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards." 

According to Kuhn: "It is rather as if the professional community has been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well." But it will be evident that such shifts do not happen overnight and that the iconoclasts will initially meet fierce resistance from the vested scientific views and interests. Is it likely that the current man-made global warming paradigm will perish? To my mind it is. After all, the odds that an emerging scientific discipline, such as climatology, hits a robust paradigm in some twenty years of its existence are equal those of a baby winning the Nobel prize.


So far, the new insights, which are reflected in a growing number of skeptics' articles in peer-reviewed journals and the chat boxes of climate skeptic Internet groups, have had little or no impact on the still ongoing work on Kyoto. Signing or ratifying Kyoto is one thing, implementation is quite another. It requires the solution of a host of technical problems with some serious political implications.


Since it is assumed that not all developed countries will be able to achieve their CO2 reduction targets within their own borders, trading in CO2 emission rights will be crucial to achieving the overall goals. In his monograph, The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming (Princeton University Press, 2002), David G. Victor explores the political, economic, and technical issues that policymakers must address prior to creating a complete emission trading system. He argues that when viewed in totality, the hurdles to be cleared are so daunting that a sensible emission trading system is infeasible in the foreseeable future.


Victor especially highlights the difficulties connected with the allocation of an initial round of emission rights. For example, would these be allocated for free on the basis of volume of emissions in the past, or should they be auctioned? Subsequently, how could emerging countries and industries be accommodated in a later stage? What institutions, methods, measurement techniques and data are available to monitor emissions? Since emission rights are similar to property rights, what institutions will secure these rights? What institution(s) will be able to enforce compliance if nations and/or industries are cooking the books? These and other questions still await satisfactory replies.


Russia and Ukraine offer a special case. Victor points out that these countries are by far the cheapest sources of emission credits -- not because the Russians and Ukrainians have had an epiphany about the risks of global warming, but rather because their savvy negotiators got an emission target in Kyoto that far exceeds the likely level of emissions. Russia and Ukraine agreed in Kyoto to freeze emissions at 1990 levels, but the collapse of the post-Soviet economy in the early 1990s means that their emissions are already far below that target and unlikely to recover fully by 2008. Selling the windfall to nations in emissions deficit could earn Russia and Ukraine perhaps $100 billion. (About four-fifths of that windfall would flow to Russia.) Since the windfall is free -- completely an artifact of the luck and skill of the diplomats in Kyoto rather than the result of any effort to control emissions -- these extra credits would squeeze out bona fide efforts to control emissions. That buys paper compliance but no reduction in global warming. According to Victor, no Western legislature will ratify a deal that merely enriches Russia and Ukraine while doing nothing to control emissions and slow global warming.


In this light, it is all the more remarkable that Russia is nevertheless wavering about ratifying Kyoto. Putin's economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, recently declared: "The U.S. decided that these expenses [of Kyoto] were excessive. I'm not convinced that Russia can afford expenses that the world's richest country couldn't afford." Moreover, a number of well-respected Russian scientists have recently raised serious doubts about, from the Russian point of view, both the validity of the science and the efficacy of the economics involved. This debate has led to a number of critical articles in the press, including in Pravda, saying the "Kyoto protocol is not worth a thing" and, in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, "The warming that never existed." The Russian Federation has now called a major international conference in late September to review the whole issue.


If -- and this is a big if -- Russia would decide not to ratify Kyoto, wouldn't it be an ironic twist of history that the most important former communist country would prevent the worldwide entry into force of a treaty which clearly represents a deviation from the basic tenets of the free market system by introducing elements of central control into the economy?


Victor concludes: "Analysts are pinning Kyoto's imminent demise on the wrong factors -- on fleeting political will, on the expectation that Kyoto's costs far outweigh its environmental benefits, and on the fear that Kyoto will create strong and intrusive international institutions that will harm national democracies and freedoms." But Victor argues: "[..] that, while these factors are important, the demise of the Kyoto Protocol is largely the consequence of its very architecture."


Victor suggests some alternative approaches to fixing the flawed emission trade scheme. But would it not be better to forget about the whole thing? Many would argue that this is totally inconceivable since so much political capital has been invested in the undertaking and since the population wants the governments to "do something" about the "threat" of global warming. Well ... is it really inconceivable? Perhaps not. As a matter of fact, it happened before. The aborted New International Economic Order (NIEO) of the 70s, which showed many similarities with Kyoto offers a precedent. It was an equally grandiose worldwide scheme that aimed at a considerable degree of global economic management or control, backed by enormous funds and a huge bureaucracy. It ultimately fell apart because it was ill conceived and it became abundantly clear that it did not serve the interests of the parties that were engaged in the process.


It could be argued that because of its complexity and inconsistencies, Kyoto will collapse under its own sheer weight. But in the meantime, it may cause a lot of harm. It acts as a sword of Damocles, depressing the investment climate, especially in Europe. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that European governments, sooner rather than later, should issue a clear signal that they will follow the example of the U.S. in postponing their decision on Kyoto to 2010.


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