TCS Daily

Kyoto and Our Adaptive Capacity

By Dominic Standish - December 4, 2003 12:00 AM

MILAN, Italy -- A cloud is hanging over Milan as delegates from 188 countries are discussing climate change here. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is holding its ninth conference of the Conference of the Parties (COP 9), ending on 12 December. Many fear that confirmed Russian scepticism towards the Kyoto Protocol means it will not be enforced.


The Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere and it was signed by 172 countries in 1997. But the Protocol will only be approved when 55 signatories have ratified it. These countries must include industrialised countries that produced 55 percent of the developed world's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 1990. Both the US and Australia have indicated that they will not ratify the Protocol.


Therefore the spotlight has fallen on Russia. Ratifications have reached 44 percent to date and Russia's 17 percent would be sufficient for the Protocol to be implemented. The Italian environment minister, Altero Matteoli, was optimistic at the opening of COP 9 that Russia will eventually ratify the Protocol. But then the Protocol's "significant limitations on the economic growth of Russia," were criticised by Andrei Illarionov, a Russian presidential aide, in Moscow on 2 December. "Of course, in this current form this protocol cannot be ratified," he added.


There has been subsequent speculation that Illarionov's statement was aimed at Russia's parliamentary elections on 7 December. The Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chr├ętien, said on 2 December that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had assured Canada that he would ratify the deal.


While the approval of the Kyoto Protocol is on ice, delegates are examining new reports on climate change emissions, policy and technology. They are also discussing how forests can be planted to soak up GHGs, particularly CO2.


But the effectiveness of such measures was widely questioned at another conference in Milan before COP 9 started. "From Greenhouse Effect to Climate Control" was organised by the new think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni, on 29 November. The conference also launched two new books about global warming (Adapt or Die, edited by Kendra Okonski, and Dall'effetto serra alla pianificazione economica, edited by Kendra Okonski and Carlo Stagnaro). The books' editors and several contributors spoke at the conference.


The only speaker in favour of the Kyoto Protocol was Mario Mauro, from the Forza Italia party that leads the Italian government's coalition. Those who support the Protocol partly attribute global temperature rises over the last 150 years to GHGs from human activities like transport, agriculture and energy production.


Antonio Gaspari, from Milan's European Centre of Population, Environment and Development Studies (CESPAS), asked whether global warming is due to more GHGs like CO2. "The whole theory of global warming is based on CO2 increases," said Gaspari. "CO2 is not satanic gas. It is a fundamental component of fauna on the planet," he said.


S. Fred Singer of the University of Virginia correctly pointed out that the solar cycle has been ignored as a cause of warming by those promoting the Kyoto Protocol. Opponents of the Protocol sometimes highlight such natural factors in trying to determine the causes of climate change.


During my own presentation to the conference, I discussed the development of society (social, economic and technological) in the context of any climate changes. As an example of a technological response, I looked at the mobile barriers being built to protect Venice from flooding and rising sea levels (partly caused by climate change). Regardless of whether climate change is due to GHGs or natural factors, such initiatives by societies will govern how we experience it.


Supporting the Kyoto Protocol means seeing humans as part of the problem for creating GHGs. We should not rely on Russia to defeat the Protocol. But nor can the Protocol be effectively challenged by focusing on the impact of climate change due to the dominance of natural factors. If the Protocol is defeated or modified on this basis, it will be a hollow victory because this stresses our passive role as the victims of natural forces. Instead, humans should be perceived as the solution, not part of the problem. We run societies and we have the opportunity to determine how climate change affects us.


It is important that specialists monitor climate change and alert us to any foreseen dangers so that we can respond positively. But why are economists, politicians, sociologists and others suddenly obsessed with climate change? It seems that too many of us are concentrating on what the climate is doing to us, instead of concentrating on what we can do so that the climate has as little impact on us as possible. Let's leave climate change to the climatologists so that the rest of us can get on with developing the world we live in.


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