TCS Daily

Kyoto, Nyet!

By Hans H.J. Labohm - October 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Among those who have left a personal stamp on the current attention to climate issues, the most important is undoubtedly the American climatologist James Hansen. For that reason, he is known to some people as the "father of climate change."


Without actually naming Hansen, the dean of Dutch climatologists Frits Böttcher once referred to an incident that he witnessed in the early 1970s during a conference on "Big Science" (costly space projects, particle accelerators and the like) in the framework of international science policy. To his amazement, climate research was also placed on the agenda -- even though it was not regarded as part of this category of science at the time. But an American climatologist [Hansen] explained at this conference that this situation would change rapidly because one of his Russian counterparts, Mikhael Budyko, had injected new life into an old theory by a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, dating from 1898. This related to the hypothesis that increased burning of fossil fuels could lead to global warming due to an intensification of the natural greenhouse effect.


In his publication, Budyko predicted that the erstwhile Soviet Union would have a better climate. By contrast, the "wheat belt" in the US would be transformed into a desert and part of Florida would be submerged. The American continued by saying that this message was exactly what was needed in order finally to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for purchase of a supercomputer. There was only one recipe for this: "Scare them to death!" And this recipe proved to be successful. Today the United States alone spends more than $2 billion annually for climate studies, not including the costs of satellites, ships, and laboratory construction.


Budyko's optimism about the positive effects of purported global warming for Russia are far from dead. They have recently been echoed by Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a conference on global warming in Moscow. According to the Russian Journal Daily, he poured cold water over the expectation of many about any hope that Russia would be eager to sign the Kyoto protocol. Without a Russian signature, the protocol will be dead.


Putin's remarks were less than subtle for an audience which consisted of true believers in man-made global warming. 'In Russia, you often hear, either as a joke or seriously, that Russia is a northern country and it would not be scary for it to be two or three degrees warmer,' Putin said in an unexpected interjection at the conference. 'Maybe it would be good and we could spend less on fur coats and other warm things,' he said. The audience was not amused.


In a subsequent intervention, Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, elaborated on the Russian position. According to the Moscow Times, Illarionov voiced doubts about global warming being a stable trend, echoing Russian scientists who told the conference that the Kyoto Protocol's advocates had failed to prove that emissions trigger global warming. They pointed at other factors which require more thorough analysis.


Moreover, Illarionov explained that Kyoto would put constraints on Russia's economic growth. He pointed out that the United States and Australia opted out of the protocol after finding out that compliance would be too costly, and that it would be even less affordable for Russia, which has a much smaller economy. He furthermore underlined that Russia could benefit from global warming: warmer temperatures would help increase harvests, cut energy consumption and open ice-encrusted seas to navigation. "Public opinion was artificially focused on negative consequences of climate change, but there are also positive consequences for both our country and the planet as a whole," Illarionov said.


More specifically, Illarionov observed that the Kyoto Protocol would hamper Putin's goal of doubling gross domestic product in 10 years and the subsequent growth by requiring Russia to start a costly overhaul of its industries in order to cut emissions. Doubling GDP will bring Russia's emissions to 104 percent of their 1990 level, conflicting with the protocol. "But Russia isn't going to stop at this level, so the carbon dioxide level will be much higher," Illarionov said. The United States, China and many other nations staying out of the protocol account for 68 percent of global emissions, making the document largely senseless. Russia currently accounts for some 6 percent of global emissions compared to the U.S. share of 25 percent and China's 13 percent. "We are facing a bizarre situation when Russia, which makes less emissions, must cut them, while nations which make much more, like the United States and China, won't curb them," Illarionov said. "That raises the question about the document's efficiency," he added. "No matter what sacrifice Russia makes, it won't bring us closer to the goal. It would be strange to undertake such obligations if they aren't universal."


The Russian Journal Daily, which is in favour of Kyoto, commented: "Whether or not Moscow will eventually decide to sign the agreement or sweep it into the ashheap (or rising ocean waters) of history remains to be seen. Putin's snub of the UN request to set a ratification date is either an indication that he is rather more cold than lukewarm on the issue, or a ploy to wring more economic concessions out of the affair. We hope it is the latter."


Well ... don't bet on it!


All in all, by publicly airing his criticism of Kyoto, President Putin has instilled some common sense into the climate change debate, thus preventing the world form taking overhasty and costly decisions. Should his position be attributed to the KGB culture of scepticism in which he was raised? If so, isn't funny that at last the KGB has produced something good for the world?


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