TCS Daily

Kyoto's Walls Are Crumbling Down

By Hans H.J. Labohm - February 14, 2005 12:00 AM

The Kyoto Protocol goes into effect Wednesday, and yet its walls are crumbling down.

A high-profile campaign by the British government -- focusing on the discussion of a new alarming report by the International Climate Change Taskforce: 'Meeting The Climate Challenge' -- has attempted to bolster the treaty. The main message of this report is that it is vital that global temperatures do not rise by more than 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that would trigger this rise could possibly be reached in about 10 years or so.

The taskforce was set up by Blair's favourite think-tank, the British Institute for Public Policy Research, working in concert with the Centre for American Progress and the Australia Institute. The group was co-chaired by Stephen Byers, a former minister of transport in the Labour government (whose credentials in the field of climate science had remained a well-kept secret until then) and the US Senator Olympia Snowe. In order to secure a politically correct outcome of the exercise, its instigators apparently did not want to run the risk of inviting prominent climatologists to contribute to it.

Yet the report was the capstone of a UK governmental conference in Exeter, southwest England, Feb. 1-3. The conference, 'Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change', was announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and was intended to give a scientific context to Britain's efforts to make the climate issue a central feature of its Group of Eight (G8) and EU Presidencies this year. The conference was charged with examining the impact of climate change, stipulated in advance to be catastrophic.

The well-known British climate sceptic, Benny Peiser, was among the audience. His first-hand impressions:

        'I have just returned from the most depressing conference I have ever 
        attended. After two days of relentless barrage of doom and gloom predictions 
        at the Met Office conference on 'Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change' 
        I decided that enough is enough.

        'The unmitigated exposure to prophecies of imminent ice ages, looming 
        hell fire, mass starvation, mega-droughts, global epidemics and mass 
        extinction is an experience I would not recommend to anyone with a 
        thin-skinned disposition (although the news media couldn't get enough of 
        it). But such was the spectacle of pending disaster that anyone who dared 
        - or was allowed - to question whether the sky is really about to fall on us 
        (and there were at least half a dozen of moderate anti-alarmists present), 
        was branded a 'usual suspect' ....'

And so he goes on.

The final result was that the British chairman tried and failed to push through a resolution defining crisis levels for rising temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

The Exeter meeting was preceded by a conference, 'Apocalypse, No!' organized by the Scientific Alliance, an independent group of scientists without taxpayer funding, on Jan. 27 at the Royal Institution. Speakers were Profs David Bellamy, Richard Lindzen, Fred Singer, Nils-Axel Mörner, and Benny Peiser. They dealt, amongst other things, with the claims derived from computer models and gave examples of tuning, in which there were so many adjustable parameters that the modeling amounts to an exercise in curve fitting. The conclusion was that the likelihood that the computer models were correct, with all those adjustable parameters, was zero. Regarding the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) claim that models can fit the observed global mean temperatures, Fred Singer referred to a nice quotation from the famous mathematician John von Neumann: 'With four parameters I can fit an elephant and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.'

In a letter to The Times, Sir Ian Lloyd, commented:

        'The conference organised by the Scientific Alliance on Thursday [...] was, 
        in my judgement, outstanding in the quality, conviction, impartiality 
        and authority of the speakers. Whatever one's views on the so-called 
        'scientific consensus' on global warming may be, the solid facts and 
        arguments presented deserve rather more attention and discussion 
        than that which they have so far received in the British press as a whole.'

How to deal with the apparently irresistible temptation by Kyoto adherents to frighten the public by orchestrated scare-mongering campaigns based on pseudo-science? The well-respected climate modeler Hans von Storch (who is not a climate sceptic) recently warned that there is a serious problem for the natural sciences: namely, the public depiction and perception of climate change. Research has landed in a crisis because its public actors assert themselves on the saturated market of discussion by overselling the topic. Von Storch:

        'The pattern is always the same: the significance of individual events 
        is processed to suit the media and cleverly dramatized; when prognoses 
        for the future are cited, among all the possible scenarios it is regularly 
        the one with the highest rates of increase in greenhouse gas emissions 
        -- and thus with the most drastic climatic consequences -- that is chosen. 
        Equally plausible variations with significantly lower emission increases 
        go unmentioned.

        'Whom does this serve? It is assumed that fear can motivate listeners, 
        but it is forgotten that it mobilizes them only in the short term. [...] Each 
        successive recent claim about the future of the climate and of the planet 
        must be ever more dramatic than the previous one. Once apocalyptic 
        heat waves have been predicted, the climate-based extinction of animal 
        species no longer attracts attention. Time to move on to the reversal 
        of the Gulf Stream. Thus there arises a spiral of exaggeration. Each 
        individual step may appear to be harmless; in total, however, the knowledge 
        about climate, climate fluctuations, climate change and climatic effects 
        that is transferred to the public becomes dramatically distorted.

        'Sadly, the mechanisms for correction within science itself have failed. 
        Within the sciences, openly expressed doubts about the current evidence 
        for climatic catastrophe are often seen as inconvenient, because they 
        damage the 'good cause,' particularly since they could be 'misused 
        by skeptics.' The incremental dramatization comes to be accepted, 
        while any correction of the exaggeration is regarded as dangerous, 
        because it is politically inopportune. Doubts are not made public; rather, 
        people are led to believe in a solid edifice of knowledge that needs only 
        to be completed at the outer edges.'

And von Storch concludes:

        'The result of this self-censorship in scientists' minds is a deaf ear for new 
        and surprising ideas that compete with or even contradict conventional 
        patterns of explanation; science degenerates into being a repair shop for 
        popular, politically opportune claims to knowledge. Thus it not only 
        becomes sterile; it also loses its ability to advise the public objectively.'

Now what about the politics of global warming? The international climate conference in Buenos Aires, last December, has been a disaster for the Kyotoists. The US and Australia have repeated their refusal to join. Moreover, China, India and other G-77 countries have made clear that they will not accept any commitment to reduce emissions as from 2012, when Kyoto Mark I expires. More surprisingly, Italy has announced that it will withdraw from the Kyoto process in the same year. It plausible to assume that other European countries, particularly Russia, will follow suit.

Against this background will Tony Blair succeed in getting the US and Australia on board as yet, as a first step to wider global acceptance of Kyoto? It seems highly unlikely to me. But what would Blair's assessment be? In fact, we don't know.

But Tony Blair is neither fool nor zealot. He has excellent political instincts. Moreover, he is an outstanding strategist. He will probably be well informed. On the one hand he is being briefed by the noble greenhouse warrior and Kyoto fanatic Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser to the British government, who qualified climate change as a bigger threat than terrorism. But on the other hand one might assume that Blair will also be aware of more sobering information, e.g., by 'The Economist', which recently carried an article foreboding the turning of Kyoto's tide ('Hotting Up, The Debate over Global Warming Is Getting Rancorous', Feb. 4th, 2005). So how to solve this quandary?

Tony Blair is tough on security and the economy. His stance on Iraq and the recently announced measures to reform the British disability pension scheme are cases in point. With the latter he tries to impose a sound dose of additional work ethic on his flock. On the other hand he has to preserve his leftish credentials in order to please the left wing of his Party. Kyoto, the darling of the Left, offers him a golden opportunity to do so. So he has to posture as a fierce defender of this messianic project. When it fails, he can clearly show that he has done his utmost to succeed, but he had to yield to strong opposing forces, on which he can put the blame. Of course, Europe's favourite candidates for this role include the Americans and/or President Bush. Subsequently, Blair may leave the battle unscathed and have his way.

But of course, it is preposterous, yes even malicious to speculate that this kind of premeditation is part of Blair's calculations. Therefore, the reader should erase it immediately from his memory.


TCS Daily Archives