The Kyoto Protocol: The Costly Politics of Global Environmentalism, Part 1 of 4

by | Apr 20, 2000 | Environment

The KYOTO PROTOCOL is being advertised as an international agreement to reduce the “threat” of greenhouse warming to the global climate. As its framers and supporters phrase it, global warming is the “greatest challenge to human existence on this planet;” this conveniently ignores the challenges from nuclear war, terrorist attacks with biological and chemical weapons […]

The KYOTO PROTOCOL is being advertised as an international agreement to reduce the “threat” of greenhouse warming to the global climate. As its framers and supporters phrase it, global warming is the “greatest challenge to human existence on this planet;” this conveniently ignores the challenges from nuclear war, terrorist attacks with biological and chemical weapons by rogue nations, and the perennial problem of poverty and social unrest. The late Aaron Wildavsky more correctly characterized global warming as the “mother of all environmental scares.” In reality, the Protocol it is a radical initiative in launching economic and social policies that threaten democratic values, economic growth, and national sovereignty.

The KYOTO PROTOCOL, adopted in December 1997 as a follow-on to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Climate Treaty, would require the industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse (GH) gases by an average of 5.2 percent — below 1990 levels. The most important GH gas is carbon dioxide (CO2), stemming mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for the generation of energy. Kyoto puts no requirements on the 130 or so developing nations, including such giants as Brazil, India, and China.

“Early Action” on Kyoto
The most interesting scheme for getting industry behind the Kyoto Protocol is Senate Bill S-2617. It would give marketable credits to industries for taking “early action” to cut CO2 emissions. But these credits would only gain value if indeed the KYOTO PROTOCOL becomes the law of the land. It therefore turns these industries into promoters of the PROTOCOL by giving them financial incentives. Conversely, since this is zero-sum game, businesses and consumers that do not reduce emissions within the early period would pay more heavily when trying to meet the requirements for emission reduction. If this bill should ever become law, it will cause tremendous problems within the United States and give rise to conflicting interpretations. For example, would a public utility gain credits for buying a nuclear power plant? Or would it get credits for actions to reduce nitrogen-oxide pollution, as required by law, while at the same time reducing CO2 output. Would suppliers of natural gas incur heavy penalties as they increase gas supplies to power plants switching from coal to gas? Could an industry gain credits for taking steps that it would do anyway because they make economic sense or that are required because of pollution regulations?

To place the KYOTO PROTOCOL in context, to understand its implications, and appreciate its many problems — if it is ever adopted — one must first stipulate a large number of items about the science of climate change and about the economic impact of global warming.

1. To begin with, one must assume that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide will continue its increase and will more than double in the next century. Many experts doubt that this will ever happen, as the world proceeds on a path of ever-greater energy efficiency, and as low-cost fuels become depleted and therefore more costly.

2. Next, one must assume that global temperatures will really rise to the extent calculated by the conventional climate models used by the United Nations science advisory group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The evidence from actual observations, however, suggests that any warming will be minute and therefore inconsequential.

3. The putative warming has been labeled as greater and more rapid than anything experienced in human history. But actual measurements contradict this apocalyptic statement. For example, data from ocean-bottom sediment cores and polar ice cores clearly show much warmer periods in the past. As recently as 1000 years ago, during the “Medieval Climate Optimum,” Vikings were able to settle Greenland. Even higher temperatures were experienced about 6000 years ago during the much-studied “Climate Optimum.”

4. One of the most feared consequences of a global warming is a rise in sea level that could flood low-lying areas and damage the economy of coastal nations. But actual evidence suggests just the opposite: a modest warming will reduce the steady rate of rise of sea level, which has been going on for many centuries. What happens is that increased evaporation from the ocean causes more precipitation, leading to more ice accumulation in the Polar Regions, and a drop in sea levels.

5. A detailed re-evaluation of the impact on agriculture and forests has just been completed by a prestigious group of specialists, led by a Yale University resource economist. The group concludes that agriculture and forests would benefit from global warming and would not be damaged as had previously been thought. Contrary to the general wisdom, higher CO2 levels and temperatures would increase the GNP of the United States and put more money in the pockets of the average family. In other words, global warming is good for you!

6. To further appreciate the problems with the Kyoto protocol, one needs to recognize that if it were to be put into effect and observed punctiliously, its impact on future temperatures would be negligible. Using the data of the UN scientific report, one can calculate that Kyoto would slightly slow the ongoing increase in the level of greenhouse (GH) gases and cause a virtually undetectable temperature reduction of only 0.05 degrees C by the year 2,050. Kyoto is costly — and quite ineffective.

7. It is generally agreed that achieving a stable level of GH gases requires much more drastic emission reductions. To stabilize at the 1990 level, the IPCC report calls for a 60 to 80 percent reduction — about 15 Kyotos!

8. Finally, there’s the fundamental question of defining the goal of the UN Climate Treaty. Article 2 of the Treaty describes the ultimate goal as stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous interference with the climate system.” But what is this level? It has never been defined. We cannot tell whether it is greater or lower than the present level. Nonetheless, the KYOTO PROTOCOL calls for a drastic reduction by the industrialized nations. By 2010, it would require the United States to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 35 percent, representing a cut in energy use of about one-third.

Originally published in the World and I, December 1999, pages 331-341. Reprinted with permission of the author.

S. Fred Singer is the founder and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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