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  • The Kyoto Protocol: dangerous for both science and society?

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I recently received a thoughtful letter from a colleague. In this, he argued cogently that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change was not only bad for climatology as a subject, but also for science as a whole. Scientists, he argued, had allowed themselves to be used and manipulated by groups with strong political agendas so that science was becoming ‘legitimised’ by European political correctness and not by the cautious processes of science itself.

I would wish to go further. I believe the Kyoto Protocol is bad for science, for economics, for politics, and for society, in the widest sense. The idea that we can control, in any predictable manner, climate change through the management of one tiny set of variables, namely human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, is so fundamental a lie that it beggars belief.

Myth vs. Reality

Climate is the ultimate coupled non-­linear chaotic system. Unsurprisingly our general circulation models (GCMs) remain intrinsically simplistic, with even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitting publicly that it knows next-to-nothing about 75% of the major proxy variables involved. Some of the missing variables are so blindingly obvious, including soot, clouds and waves, that it is embarrassing.

In approaching the Kyoto Protocol, and the recent political shenanigans last November in The Hague and this July in Bonn, it is therefore vital to distinguish between ‘global warming’ and the complex science of climate change. ‘Global warming’ is pure politics and myth. It is a grand narrative, invented in 1989, which carries with it both the language and the baggage of an obsessive, nearly fundamentalist, set of New Age religious beliefs. ‘Global warming’ has become the legitimising ‘science’ for stemming Neo-Malthusian population expansion, limiting economic growth, controlling the car, blocking all development, attacking the evil American Empire, and fighting capitalism and globalisation. The recent juxtaposition of the Genoa violent anti-capitalist protests and the Bonn pro-Kyoto/anti-Bush demonstrations says it all.

Thus when Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush’s newly-appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced last March that the United States had “no interest in implementing that treaty”, meaning the ‘global warming’ protocol, negotiated and signed in 1997 at Kyoto, Japan, the European ‘Green’ movement sensu lato, including European governments, went hysterical. It was far worse than not having had sex “with that woman.”

‘The Toxic Texan’ had not just rejected a treaty; he had blasphemed against a the new religion so that he was instantly transmogrified into what one German newspaper, Die Woche, has called the ‘Climate Killer’. His Faustian pact would bring the world to the very edge of ruin. He was Sauron of The Lord of the Rings wreaking havoc throughout the earth with his genetically-modified orcs and spouting smokestack industrial volcanoes.

Articles of faith

Belief in this powerful European myth demands allegiance to a number of strict articles of faith. First, climate change over the last decade must be faster and worse than at any time during the past 1000 years or more, despite the fact that we are rising out of a ‘Little Ice Age’ that ended around 1880. Secondly, the cause of this dramatic change has to be human greed and growth, not ‘natural’ climate drivers or forcings, so that, only by sacrificing ourselves to the Earth, can we atone for our sins and save the planet.

In this sense, the religion is hardly new, because it emulates so closely the sacrificial demands of many ancient religions. Moreover, the Kyoto targets for controlling the emissions of greenhouse gases must hurt economically and politically, especially the Americans; this is part of our self-flagellation. The dreadful political fudge achieved at Bonn therefore will not do for many. Religious purity demands that no treaty at all is better than one that opts for the easy road that leads to destruction. Finally, the prime sinner must be America, with its gas-guzzling, growth-orientated, polluted, Erin Brokovich world.

In the United Kingdom, these tenets of faith are now so powerful that, by contrast, the hard science of climate change barely gets a look in. Indeed, the work of a wide range of serious, but sceptical, climate scientists is totally excluded from public debate, particularly in bien pensant news outlets such as the Today programme on BBC radio 4, Channel 4 TV News, and The Guardian and Independent newspapers.

For those seeking ‘truth’, however, it is deeply alarming that a whole series of recently published heavyweight scientific papers questioning both the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature and the data / modelling underlying the concept of ‘global warming’, have been basically ignored by the UK and the European media. These scientific papers are found in major journals such as Nature, Climate Research, and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and involve institutions of the highest scientific distinction, including NASA, the Goddard Space Flight Centre, the University of the Ruhr, Ottawa-Carlton Geoscience Centre, Harvard University, the Smithsonian, and Stanford University.

Yet, despite their undoubted scientific legitimacy, the papers have received scant public attention, above all because they do not support and ‘legitimise’ the socially-constructed myth of ‘global warming’. I have myself tried to persuade environmental correspondents to report such work, only to be met with incredulity that such science might even exist.

Neglected science

One critical focus has been on the role of that most important ‘greenhouse’ gas of all, water vapour (not carbon dioxide), and on the palaeo-geological relationships between water vapour, carbon dioxide and temperature. Jan Veizer’s work, for example, is widely regarded as magisterial in its decoupling of temperature from CO2, so much so that one editorial commentary written for the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change regards his work as creating a crisis in the ‘global warming’ myth. The editorial summarises the importance of the work as follows: “In a revealing scientific paper recently published in Nature [December 2000], Veizer et aI present what could well be described as the beginning of the end for the theory of CO2-induced global warming.”

The paper, of course, met with resounding silence in the European media. Yet it is strongly supported by another key paper from the prestigious Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, in which the authors have even gone so far as to warn that: “Our review of the literature has shown that GCMs [climate models] are not sufficiently robust to provide an understanding of the potential effects of CO2 on climate necessary for public discussion.” Now there’s an unusually cautious thought!

A second focus has been on the many missing, or little-known, variables in the IPCC and other climate models, including newly-discovered ‘Pacific’ vents by Richard Lindzen, Alfred Sloan—professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and others. If confirmed through further research, this effect alone, which is not recognised in current climate prediction models, could significantly reduce estimates of future climate warming.

Another neglected variable is particulates, especially soot. Again, new work on black carbon (soot) and aerosols was reported in America, but hardly at all in Europe, yet soot may be responsible for 15% to 30% of ‘global warming’, although it is not even considered in any of the discussions about controlling climate change, according to Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson.

A third focus has been on the need to correct many temperature measurements, especially those taken over the oceans. Some of this work, at least, was reported fully by BBC Science / Technology Online, a creditable exception to the normal media failure in this field. Studies have demonstrated that, when scientists take proxy sea-surface temperatures out of the global temperature record for the past 20-plus years and replace them with air temperature data gathered more accurately by ships and buoys, the global warming trend at Earth’s surface drops markedly by about one-third - from 0.19 to about 0.l30Celsius per decade. Other scientists argue that land temperature measurements and records are equally flawed, reflecting primarily the process of urbanisation and the well-documented ‘urban heat island’ effect rather than any significant rise in global temperatures.

Romantic myths

I could go on. But it should now be patently clear that the myth of ‘global warming’ has little to do with the complex science of ‘climate change’. And the bottom-line truth is that we still know precious little about the latter. Moreover, it is always salutary to return to basic, primary school-level, science. Climate is governed by a billion variables and it is intrinsically chaotic. These variables range from the flip of a red admiral butterfly’s wing, through the changing albedo of the Earth’s surface, erupting volcanoes, shifting ocean currents, waves and salinity, the dynamic geometry and cycles of the earth and the sun, the ever-changing mix of gases, ‘natural’ and ‘human’, to planetary dust and meteors.

The grand narrative that we can ultimately affect, or ‘control’, climate change in any meaningfully predictive way simply by playing about with just one or two politically-selected variables has to be challenged publicly. Only a mighty, all powerful, romantic myth could cover up such a basic piece of ‘non-science’.

Reality is surely about recognising climate change as the norm, about acknowledging climate as the most complex of systems about which we still know very little, and about humans remaining ever dynamically adaptable to whatever change comes—hot, wet, cold, or dry, or all at once. Kyoto is dangerous for science and society precisely because it fails to acknowledge these three points. Kyoto is fundamentally about a religious belief in ‘global warming’ and about authoritarian ‘command-and-control’ target economics that simply will not work.

Even if all 180 countries ratified the protocol and then actually met their greenhouse gas emission targets—a highly unlikely political scenario—we still might only affect temperature by between 0.07 and 0.2 degress Celsius, and even this could be thrown out by a couple of erupting volcanoes or altering landscape albedos.

And what are the economics of this meaningless self-sacrifice demanded by Kyoto? According to recent models, implementing Kyoto will cost anywhere between $100 billion and $1000 billion, with a mean around $350 billion. Now that amount of money could pay off the public debt of the 49 poorest countries of the world and provide clean drinking water for all! Need one say more?

The author is professor of biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London.

Acknowledgment: This article appears in The Chemical Engineer, September 2001.
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