Science Not Hot Agenda Item at Climate Summit

by William Yeatman on October 14, 2000

in Kyoto Negotiations

(The Hague, Netherlands–November 15) – Before several thousand delegates and other participants in the Netherlands Congress Center, IPCC Chairman Robert Watson sternly concluded that recent severe weather events are in some way attributable to Man’s activities, and more is to come. With no questions from delegates permitted, Dr. Robert Watson departed this forum, held in cavernous “Plenary 1”, billed in various quarters as a “hearing” on the relevant science. Thus ended the “science” portion of this 12-day COP-6, which is being billed as either the “final step” in, or the “last chance” for completing the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan.

Some participants questioned this omission of any debate or even multi-faceted presentation on science, given recent developments. Not the least of these was the shift in approach by NASA’s Dr. James Hansen regarding carbon dioxide, heretofore regarded as the culprit causing global warming. Dr. Hansen is considered the father of the theory of man-made global warming due to his alarming testimony in 1988 before a United States Senate committee. Demonstrating a willingness to follow the evidence irrespective of where it may lead, he recently downplayed the conventional wisdom, which he helped spawn, that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions were the predominant cause of global warming.

Most proposals to address climate change revolve around limiting man-made CO2 emissions. Additionally, astrophysicists recently offered further proof that activity of the sun, including solar winds and flares, correlate with changes in the Earth’s climate, leading some other scientists to caution against blaming Man for the planet’s weather before more is known. Yet just like industry was for several years fairly characterized as refusing to acknowledge even the slightest hint of climate change, global warming advocates’ mantra has been for some time that “the science is settled…let’s move on.”

Adherents of the theory, be they those who matured with “global cooling” of the 1970s or relative newcomers to the debate, consider doubt as apostasy. This includes calls for further study, and application of the “precautionary principle” – prove, e.g., a new drug or chemical is risk free before it can be sanctioned — to the Kyoto Protocol itself. To combat those counter-efforts and in preparation for this critical gathering, both the United Nations and United States in the past month had relevant subsidiary panels release material claiming scientific near-certainty and catastrophic impacts as likely in the absence of dramatic action to curb emissions from individual and industrial activity.

No scientific question made its way into this forum, however, at least formally. Treaty opponents say this speaks volumes about motive. “The refusal to engage the scientific debate with ‘non-believers’ just shows certain parties are more interested in regulating activities which they do not like – energy use, population growth – rather than addressing a known threat,” said Craig Rucker, Executive Director of Citizens for a Constructive Tomorrow.

Dr. Watson stated that while “scientific uncertainties exist,” the scientific focus should be not on whether Man influences climate, but how much, how fast, and where. The questions confronting the working groups here also assume scientific certainty on the “whether” question, and surround the “hows” and “wherefores” of limiting the emissions of those 38 industrialized nations that have agreed to greenhouse gas caps. Awaiting resolution are how to incentivize parties to reduce emissions, for example through trading “credits” without permitting widespread business as usual, and how to penalize errant countries. Encouraging the delegates are entities such as environmentalists, and industry groups that have factored possible climate change policies into their business plans.

A cadre of skeptics and parties concerned for reasons ranging from sovereignty to the treaty’s impact on the poor also arrived to press their case in the face of claims that “the science is settled.” These include industry groups such as the Global Climate Coalition, and market oriented advocacy groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute. None of this jousting, of course, tackles that which could reasonably be considered a condition precedent: scientific proof. Environmentalist advocates brook no debate about scientific resolution, which is certainly one way of avoiding specific disagreements. Yet even one of the more ardent and prominent corporate proponents of the treaty, CEO of BP Sir John Browne, can only muster a claim of “provisional” for the science.

Regarding Dr. Watson’s remarks, one participant expressed concern to him in a sidebar outside the auditorium, about the appearance that the presentation appeared to impart conclusions of a UN report that still faces several substantive, if bureaucratic, reviews for accuracy. The head of the UN’s panel replied that, while his remarks may appear to represent those of that group, they really do not, and that the report’s findings could change during the review process. Skeptics attending this “final” conference argue that the scientific uncertainties are significant enough to warrant waiting a little longer for answers before plunging ahead with the major tax or regulatory schemes that a Kyoto energy-suppression regime will require.

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