The blind leading the blind

Politics | Opposing the Kyoto Conference

Issue: "Global Warming," Nov. 29, 1997

How will Americans react to calls for significant cutbacks in the use of fossil fuels, specifically, less gasoline in our cars each year, a reduction in the natural gas that heats our homes, less coal burned to make electricity? Next month, if a recent survey is reliable, broadly stated Kyoto declarations will receive wide praise. According to the New York Times, an August poll commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that "about three quarters of registered voters surveyed said they believe that global warming is a serious problem and that a treaty with deep cuts in [CO2] emissions is needed." However, when Americans learn that required changes will involve unpleasant cutbacks in the good things of material living, many will take a second look at what has become a much-hyped truism. Amid the din of presidential rhetoric, here are some facts that you won't be hearing from the White House in the coming weeks: * A century-long record of ground-temperature measurements in the 48 contiguous states shows no upward trend. * While a worldwide average increase of about 1 degree Fahrenheit seems to have occurred since 1890, the upward temperature trend doesn't follow the rising level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. From 1940 to 1970, there was actually a slight cooling. * The small warming seen could well be nature's way of ending the Little Ice Age, a cold period lasting several centuries. * As Al Gore's favorite glacier in Glacier Park shrinks, other valley glaciers are advancing. The Antarctic glacier, with most of the world's ice, seems to be growing. * If sea level actually began dropping in the next century, it would not come as a surprise to the experts in this field. Global warming today is mostly in the minds of computers. Climate modelers program those minds with mathematical equations thought to describe the climate system. They add in some personal judgments on how the world works, tweak the programs as needed, and out comes a warmer world. How good are their predictions? Wallace Broecker of Columbia University gave this answer: "We don't know nearly enough about the operation of the earth's climate system to make reliable predictions of the consequences of the greenhouse buildup." Climate is incredibly complex, determined by a myriad of factors. The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is only one. Peter Rogers of Harvard said that "the present increase in measured CO2 alone, without a convincingly measured rise in temperature ... is not an adequate reason for the prominence of anxiety at the political level." Nonetheless, a political process that started at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio continues to roll on. Kyoto is the culmination. As the world's political leaders meet in Japan, they will have brought with them an abundance of scientific and economic ignorance. We will see the blind leading the blind. There will be lots of posturing and jockeying. Thousands of words will be put on paper, wrestled over, and revised again and again. In the end, there will be a document smiled over by the world's leaders. In high-sounding language it will say that the world has faced up to a significant common danger and formulated a way to escape. The door will be through national quotas for CO2 emissions, and that will mean setting up an international monitoring bureaucracy with power to admonish offending nations. At the same time, expect to see gimmicks and loopholes to fend off biting the bullet. After all, the world economy is too important to allow the engine that drives it to run short of fuel. In the months succeeding the Kyoto meeting, it will become clear just what the economic price is for lowered carbon dioxide emissions. Gradually the accord might simply wither away because it will almost certainly demand too great an economic price for what might well be a non-problem. In the end, it's safe to say that economic reality will trump a hypothetical global warming of uncertain size. But before trumping occurs, this worldwide experiment in economic tinkering may introduce its own set of problems. Kyoto's architects may then have to deal with a different kind of heat. Mr. Olson is a retired geology professor with a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Columbia University.

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