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Global warming: nothing doing.

A year ago, decried as costly and ineffective and lacking badly needed Senate support, the Kyoto Protocol's future looked bleak. Today, with several new versions of related legislation under discussion, the issue is back on the table. But a hard look at the evidence suggests that when it comes to what to do about global warming less may be more - and nothing may be best.

Last summer, CEOs of 12 major corporations, including the natural gas giant Enron, and Black and Veatch, a designing firm for gas-fired power plants, met in Aspen, CO, with environmental professionals and former administration officials to draft a letter to President Clinton on global warming and the controversial and somewhat flawed Kyoto Protocol.

They urged Clinton not to submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification, where it would surely die. They attempted to delegitimize public scientific discussion of this issue by having the President appoint a bipartisan "Blue Ribbon Commission" on global warming. Last, and by no means least, they wrote to the President that industries that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions prior to passage of the Kyoto Protocol should be given credit for those reductions if and when the Protocol, or other emissions reduction mandates, pass. These credits could then be sold, at market price, to industries that had not reduced emissions, should they need a credit in order to meet a reduction target and timetable.

For example, Enron, which recently proposed some large generation facilities in India, might, for example, claim that by powering them with state-of-the-art gas turbines, they reduce greenhouse emissions by, say, 10,000,000 tons per year, compared to coal, which would nominally be the fuel of choice. They get a "credit" for this CO2 saving. Upon passage of Kyoto, a coal-fired utility, which cannot reduce emissions further, has to buy Enron's credit in order to stay in business. The market, recognizing the desperation of all of the coal-fired utilities, bids up the price of the credits to the point that Enron's competition in power production - coal - is severely, if not fatally damaged. Not a bad trick!

Further, whatever industry stands to gain in this exercise now has deployed its PACs in support of Kyoto; otherwise they do not gain this advantage.

This legislation actually already exists, in the form of a bill (S. 547), the "Credit for Voluntary Reductions Act," sponsored by Senators Chafee (R-RI), Mack (R-FL), and Lieberman (D-CT), which pundits are calling "Kyoto Lite."

An alternative approach would be to credit industry for expenses related to technological discoveries that reduce net greenhouse emissions. This incentive does not punish one sector in favor of another, but merely cost-shares environmental stewardship. Radically different from S. 547, this approach also exists in the form of a draft bill by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Hagel (R-NB), as the "Energy and Climate Policy Act of 1999."

Attempting to "game" Kyoto into existence with S. 547 is an extremely shortsighted philosophy. All legitimate models indicate Kyoto will cause enormous economic damage. The rather obvious subtext - using legislative entree to displace coal with natural gas in electrical generation - is equally short-sighted and profoundly expensive because of consequent economic damage. The reason that coal currently produces 56 percent of the nation's electricity, compared to 10 percent for natural gas, is largely because coal costs less.

A previous attempt to "game" energy production, the Fuel Use Act of 1978 that banned the production of gas-fired power plants, was repealed in Ronald Reagan's first term. Another "affirmative action" program to right this obvious, but aged, inequity would be absurd given the current economics of the energy market. CEOs who perceive global warming as a threat could more rationally support the Murkowski bill, which reduces their costs without damaging the economy.


The real question is whether any action is necessary. Lost in all of this discussion about treaties, protocols, and legislative distortion is the key question surrounding global warming: Is drastic action necessary, or are minor steps of prudency more in order?

Evidence argues persuasively in favor of the latter option. Global warming burst onto the nation's radar screen more than 10 years ago, on June 23, 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the House of Representatives that there was a strong "cause-and-effect relationship" between observed temperatures and human emissions into the atmosphere. His testimony coincided with a very hot, dry period - much worse than last summer - and subsequent polls showed that, as a result of his testimony, the public believed the 1988 drought was caused by human-induced global warming.

At that time, Hansen also produced a model for future behavior of the globe's temperature. It was one of many similar calculations that were used in the 1990 First Scientific Assessment of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stated that "when the latest atmospheric models are run with the present concentrations of greenhouse gases, their simulation of climate is generally realistic on large scales." In 1987, the U.N.'s General Assembly specifically directed the IPCC to provide the scientific basis for a "possible climate treaty." IPCC serves as the basis for the Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the need for this article.

One version of Hansen's model assumes that there was no legislation mandating large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, which turned out to be true. It predicted that global temperature between 1988 and 1997 would rise by 0.45 [degrees] C [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Figure 2 compares this to the observed temperature changes from three independent sources. Ground-based temperatures from the IPCC show a rise of 0.11 [degrees] C, or less than one-fourth of what Hansen predicted. Lower atmosphere temperatures measured by ascending thermistors on weather balloons show a decline of 0.36 [degrees] C and satellites measuring the same layer - much more "global" measures than the IPCC history, which has little data for large areas of the planet - showed a decline of 0.08 [degrees] C.


The forecast made in 1988 proved an resounding failure, and IPCC's 1990 statement out the realistic nature of these projections was simply wrong.

This failure isn't surprising. On a 100-year time-scale, this and similar models were predicting a warming of about 1.5 [degrees] C by 1988. The observed change was 0.5 [degrees] C. That the models continued to fail in the last 10 years at the rate that they were failing in the previous century was strong evidence against their use as the basis for the FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

By 1996, in its second full assessment of climate change, the IPCC admitted the validity of this position: "When increases in greenhouse gases only are taken into account...most [climate models] produce a greater mean warming than has been observed to date, unless a lower climate sensitivity [to the greenhouse effect] is used... There is growing evidence that increases in sulfate aerosols are partially counteracting the [warming] due to increases in greenhouse gases."

IPCC is presenting two alternative hypotheses: Either the base warming was simply overestimated, or some other anthropogenerated emission is preventing the warming from being observed. IPCC did not suggest an obvious explanation - that greenhouse gases were not increasing at the projected rate.

As evidence comes in, the first and third reasons appear to be carrying the day. According to a 1998 paper by Gunnar Myhre in Geophysical Research Letters, the direct warming effect of carbon dioxide was overestimated. Carbon dioxide is not accumulating in the atmosphere at even the lowest rate estimated by IPCC in 1990, according to NASA scientist James Hansen, whose early models initiated most of the hyper-concern of the last decade. The second most important greenhouse emission, methane, began to decrease its rate of increase in 1981 some 15 years before the 1996 IPCC report on climate change, which projected an increased rate of emissions for the next 50 years. That paper was published by David Etheridge in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Why didn't it warm as predicted? The idea that some other emission, such as sulfate aerosol, is reflecting the sun's radiation - and therefore cooling the surface - is increasingly untenable as the excuse for the dearth of warming. The southern half of the planet is virtually devoid of sulfates, and should have warmed at a prodigious and consistent rate for the last two decades. Unfortunately, we have very few long-term weather records from that half of the planet, and almost all come from the relatively uncommon landmasses. However, we do have more than two decades of satellite data and these show no warming at all, except for the obvious El Nino spike of 1998, now departed.

In fact, the sensitivity of climate to carbon dioxide appears to have been overestimated. The large warmings predicted by the failed models that back the Framework Convention rely on a roughly threefold amplification of carbon dioxide warming by increased atmospheric moisture (water vapor, like carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas and contributes to surface warming). But a 1997 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society study by Roy Spencer and William Braswell found that the predicted moisture was not there.


Greenhouse physics predicts that the driest air masses should respond first and most strongly to changes induced by human activities. These, in fact, are generally the coldest air masses, such as the great high-pressure system that dominates Siberia in the winter, and its only slightly more benign cousin in Northwestern North America. When the jet stream attains a proper orientation, it is this air mass that migrates south and kills orange trees in Florida.

We recently examined seasonal temperature trends in the journal Climate Research. Since World War II, warming has been largely confined to the coldest winter air masses, in agreement with the satellite observations. A warming of the coldest, driest air masses, is by definition, a relative warming of nights compared to days. By extension, this is the type of change that slightly lengthens the growing season, as the coldest temperatures occur at night. In a different paper in the same journal, we asked an additional series of questions germane to climate change concerns:

* Is the temperature becoming more variable from year-to-year? We found a statistically significant decline in interannual variability worldwide [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED].

* Is the variation from day-to-day increasing? We found no statistically significant change.

* Are the number of record high or low temperatures increasing? We found no statistically significant change.

In fact, the most notable change in the thermal climate during the greenhouse enhancement is that the coldest air masses of winter - in Siberia and North America - have warmed slightly, while the only change overall has been a tendency towards reduced year-to-year variability.

The observed data on climate and recent emissions trends clearly indicate that the concept of "dangerous" interference in the climate system is outmoded within any reasonable horizon - which makes the Kyoto Protocol a useless appendage to an irrelevant treaty. It makes S. 547 a naked attempt to use the brute force of law to mandate changes in our electrical generation system that can only cost us all. It makes Murkowski and Hagel's draft Energy and Climate Policy Act of 1999, which helps to defray the cost of environmental stewardship, a much more ethical alternative. It even makes doing nothing about global warming the right thing to do.


The Kyoto Protocol is an important amendment to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), a treaty unprecedented in its ability to dictate the domestic energy policy of its signatories, and representing a potentially notable transfer of national sovereignty to an international authority.

The stated goal of the FCCC is: "Stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference in the climate system." The operative word, "dangerous," is never defined. The quantitative target for the original treaty was to reduce the emissions of most major greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide and methane, to 1990 levels by the year 2000, in approximately 25 nations with relatively high GDPs.

Less than two years after the FCCC was signed, it became apparent that only two nations would meet the target: Great Britain and Germany, and that neither would do so out of greenhouse concern, but rather because of industrial reorganization, such as the shutdown of the wildly inefficient East German industries after reunification in 1989. In the U.S., by 1998, greenhouse gas emissions had risen a considerable 15 percent from the 1990 level, and the exponential trend indicated they would be around 37 percent higher in 2010 than in 1990.

As emissions continued to rise in spite of the FCCC, environmental organizations - which have largely driven the global warming issue - became more vocal. Representing one of the largest lobbies in the history of this nation, such organizations amass as much as $1 billion in contributions per year. The U.N. refers to these groups as "Non-Governmental Organizations" (NGOs), and the FCCC specifically empowers NGOs to further the goals of the treaty.

In concert with various governments, and out of concern that the FCCC was not "legally binding" inasmuch as the year 2000 emission reductions were only a "goal," NGOs helped to draft the main points of the Kyoto Protocol, which are that:

* It is "legally binding," allowing the UN to invoke whatever penalties it might choose on those signatories that do not meet their commitments,

* It commits the U.S. to a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels in net greenhouse gas emissions by the averaging period 2008-2012. E.U. nations and Canada are committed to an 8 percent reduction, while Australia is allowed an 8 percent increase,

* It commits none of the poor or developing nations, including China, India, and Mexico, to any emission reductions, and

* According to federal climatologists, the amount of warming that the Protocol would prevent in the next 50 years is 0.07 [degrees] C (0.13 [degrees] F), an amount too small to measure with any confidence.

What's more, the actual impact of Kyoto on the U.S. is much greater than anywhere else in the world, because the projected increase under a "business as usual" scenario, based on simple extrapolation of the established 1990-1998 trend, is 37 percent between 1990 and 2010. An additional 7 percent reduction commits the U.S. to a stunning 44 percent reduction in net emissions.

Based on preliminary numbers, Charles River Associates calculated that meeting the Protocol would cost the U.S. 2.3 percent of its GDP per year, on average, to meet the reduction target. Needless to say, the Kyoto Protocol was initially greeted with general disapproval. The Global Climate Coalition, an industry group, lined the margins of its newsletter with state-by-state job loss figures. Pundits calculated a total of 12 possible votes for the Protocol in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds majority for ratification. Representative John Dingell (D-MI), regarded by friend and foe alike as one of the most perceptive and savvy politicians of the 20th century, has said that the Protocol is "so flawed, in fact, that it cannot be salvaged."


The Green Effect" is real. Certain natural constituents in the atmosphere, namely water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane, absorb the radiation emitted by the earth in response to the warming rays of the sun. If these molecules didn't exist, the radiation would pass directly out to space.

When these molecules re-emit this radiation, it either goes out to space or radiates back down towards the earth's surface. So the greenhouse gases "recycle" some warming radiation, creating a warmer temperature in the lower atmosphere and a colder temperature in the thinner stratosphere, which contains relatively few greenhouse molecules.

The earth's natural greenhouse effect is about 33 [degrees] C (59 [degrees] F) at the surface. Without this warming, the planet would likely be a frozen iceball unable to sustain higher life forms. Of the greenhouse gases, water vapor is by far the most important. After allowing for water vapor, the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide is about 1.5 [degrees] C (2.7 [degrees] F), and that of methane is even less.

Human beings have long been emitting carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere as result of industrial activity, mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels. As a result, the effective concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before industrialization to around 450ppm today. This "effective" concentration change treats all the human greenhouse gases, including methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and a number of exotic emissions that are in very small quantity, as if they were carbon dioxide, resulting in the 450ppm figure, which is 161 percent of the background value.

Scientists have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1870s, when it was quantified in experiments by British physicist John Tyndall. The original concern that combustion of fossil fuels might change the surface temperature dates back to 1896, when Svante Arrhenius published a paper in the journal Philosophical Transactions hypothesizing that doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide would raise the surface temperature around 5 [degrees] C (9 [degrees] F), and going half-way to a doubling (we are beyond that point already) would warm the surface 3 [degrees] C (5.4 [degrees] F). This forecast was a clear failure, as the earth has only warmed 0.6 [degrees] C (1.1 [degrees] F) in the last 100 years, with more than half of that total before the major greenhouse changes. The computer-generated calculations of climate change that served as the basis for the FCCC bore a remarkable resemblance to Arrhenius' forecast.

Patrick Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute; Paul Knappenberger is senior analyst at New Hope Environmental Services.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on Kyoto Protocol 101 and the greenhouse effect
Author:Knappenberger, Paul C.
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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