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After Kyoto: A Realistic Approach to Climate Management

April 5, 2001: Last week, President Bush announced that America will not ratify the Kyoto Treaty to limit atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That should surprise no one. In 1997, the US Senate passed a motion opposing the Kyoto Treaty by a vote of 95 to nil, so there was never any real prospect of US ratification (1). Nevertheless, the President's decision set off a storm of criticism.

Norway, a major oil and gas producer, was reported to be "disappointed." In Canada, where carbon dioxide emissions are up sharply since the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated, Prime Minister Chrétien said, "We think [the Americans] should continue with Kyoto." Russia, which, under the Treaty, stood to receive financial compensation from the US for the cost of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions, was critical of America's "one-sided" action. China, which as a so-called developing nation, has no Treaty obligation to limit its large and rapidly growing greenhouse gas emissions, called the American decision "irresponsible." In Germany, where mining of high sulfur coal is subsidized for reasons of national unity, Environment Minister, Juergen Trittin, called Bush's action "isolationist." From Britain, where global-scale industrial pollution was invented, Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, accused America of "free-riding."

Newspapers were less diplomatic, accusing America of "great-power greed" (Tokyo Shimbun), having a president with the "arrogance of someone who thinks he owns the world" (Portugal's Publico), being a nation dominated by "businesses that are economic and moral weaklings" (Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung), and engaging in a "Taliban-style act" (Britain's Gruniard). None of these comments was from a country that has actually ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Mexico, the largest ratifying nation, supports Bush's decision. "We understand the U.S. position," said Environment Secretary, Victor Lichtinger, "we can't try to go too fast."

Among the other 32 ratifying nations, the largest in order of size are Uzbekistan (pop. 25 million), Romania (pop. 22 million), Ecuador and Guatamala (both pop. 13 million), and Bolivia (pop. 8 million). The other 27 nations include Palau (pop. 19 thousand), Tuvalu (pop. 11 thousand), and Niue, just East of Tonga (pop. 2,113--at the last count). Altogether, ratifying nations represent 2% of the World's population, which suggests two questions. What is the number of dollars to the nearest billion spent on climate change research by the ratifying nations? Answer, zero. What is the number of dollars to the nearest billion spent on climate change research by the US? Answer, ten. So one thing is certain: America's decision to reject Kyoto is not for lack of serious attention to the question of climate change.

The anxiety of those in low-lying countries that may sink beneath the waves if substantial climate warming occurs is understandable. That there are other valid concerns about anthropogenic climate change is unquestionable. Kyoto, however, does not provide a realistic mechanism to prevent climate warming. It seeks to impose a bureaucratic solution on a global market economy, and market forces would ensure the failure of such an approach. In particular, it places exclusive responsibility for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on developed countries, where energy-use efficiency is relatively high, and citizens are free to protest environmental pollution, while placing no curb on emissions by developing nations, where growth of energy use is rapid, energy-use efficiency is often low, regulation of pollution is slight or non-existent, and environmentalism, like other forms of free expression, may not be tolerated. The result of such a regime would be the migration of energy-intensive industries from where they are well regulated to where they are not. That makes no sense environmentally and would unfairly damage the economy of the US and other developed countries.

Great powers do not deliberately legislate their own decline. Reasonably, therefore, the US will not ratify a treaty that jeopardizes its own economic wellbeing to avert an ill-defined global hazard that, should the need arise, the US is better able to combat than any other nation.

What the US will do, according to Environment Protection Agency Administrator, Christie Whitman, is remain "absolutely committed" to continued engagement with other countries on the climate issue. What is required now, therefore, is for other nations to take the United States at its word and work with the new administration in developing a more realistic approach to climate management.

The greatest concern is over carbon dioxide. The US is the World's largest user of fossil fuels and hence the largest producer of carbon dioxide; although China is set to surpass the US in carbon dioxide emissions within a few years. There are three reasons why all nations, including those in the developing world, should restrict carbon dioxide emissions.

First, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that, all other things being equal, when its concentration in the atmosphere increases, the climate warms. The importance of this effect is uncertain because all other things are likely far from equal. The warming caused by an increased concentration of greenhouse gases affects the dynamics of the atmosphere and the amount and distribution of atmospheric water vapor, by far the most important greenhouse gas. During the last decade uncertainty about the effect of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration on mean global temperature has increased, not decreased, as climate modelers have taken account of an increasing number of feedbacks, many of which are only poorly quantified.

According to the most recent estimate from the UN sponsored International Panel on Climate Change, global mean surface temperature will rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 C during the current century because of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (2). This broad range of values reflects the large number of models currently employed, each with its own assumptions and implications. However, there is no certainty that any of the models gives the right answer, and some evidence suggests that none do. Thus, for example, Lindzen et al. (3) recently found that the area of cirrus cloud coverage (i.e., upper atmosphere humidity) relative to the area of cumulus cloud coverage (i.e., lower atmosphere humidity) decreases about 22% with an increase of 1 degree Celsius in the surface temperature over a region of the Western Pacific Ocean. Because water vapor in the upper atmosphere has a more powerful greenhouse effect (up to 1000 times) than water vapor in the lower atmosphere, this mechanism, the authors say, "would, in effect, constitute an adaptive infrared iris that opens and closes in order to control the outgoing long wave radiation in response to changes in surface temperature in a manner similar to the way in which an eye's iris opens and closes in response to changing light levels." If correct, this means that an increase in surface temperature attributable to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, has a negative feedback effect on upper atmosphere water vapor that largely counteracts the surface warming effect.

But if the risk of substantial climate warming as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is small, the magnitude of the disaster, were such warming to occur, is great. Thus, as long as the nature of the risk remains to be established, there is an obligation to future generations to incur substantial costs to avert it.

Second, carbon dioxide is not merely a greenhouse gas. It has significant physiological effects on plants and animals. For humans and most other animals, it is toxic at high concentrations. The effect on humans of an increase in atmospheric concentration from the pre-industrial value of 0.028% to a 22nd century value of between 0.05 and 0.1% may be insignificant, but we should be sure of this before allowing substantial changes in atmospheric composition to occur.

Third, a doubling or tripling in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration will have a major impact on plants, including large increases in crop and forest yields, especially in drier regions. Beside benefits, however, there are likely to be adverse consequences too. Stimulation of plant growth by an increase in carbon dioxide concentration varies widely according to species. It can be expected, therefore, that the next century will witness major changes in the composition of many ecosystems as some plant species thrive while others are eliminated by intensified competition. The result is likely to be a loss in biodiversity, not only of plants, but of the animals dependent on them. These changes need to be considered before deciding how much of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is a good thing.

How the US might limit its carbon dioxide emissions is indicated by recent comments from President Bush indicating that America should seek greater energy independence, and that current, historically high, energy prices are about right. Together, these ideas suggest that the Bush administration may be ready to promote a higher energy price policy that could stimulate both domestic supply and technological innovations that increase energy-use efficiency.

A higher energy price policy could be implemented through a carbon emission tax applied to non-renewable carbon and hydrocarbon fuels, with a rebate to US or continental suppliers as a stimulus to domestic production. Provided that the overall impact were revenue neutral, such a tax-shifting policy should be broadly accepted in America as a contribution to both national security and the protection of the global environment (4). Moreover, if the new taxes are designed to vary inversely with energy prices, putting a floor under prices when supply exceeds demand, while damping price hikes during periods of shortage, it would escape the kind of public outcry witnessed in Europe last fall, where fixed-percentage oil taxes yielded windfall revenues to governments when supply restraints pushed oil prices sharply higher.

Many measures are needed to limit the risk of harmful climate change induced by human activity, but a higher American price for energy sources that generate greenhouse gases is among the most important. America is better equipped than any nation on earth to achieve a competitive advantage through technological innovation. Now is the time for the US government to provide the fiscal incentives that will induce the wave of innovation needed to raise energy-use efficiency throughout the American economy.

Revised April 17, 2001

References

(1) Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases achieves little. 1997. naturalSCIENCE News Report.

(2) Global Warming Is Happening Faster: Effects To Last For Millenia. 2001. naturalSCIENCE Cover Story.

(3) Lindzen, R.S. M.-D. Chou, and A.Y. Hou. 2001. Does the earth have an adaptive infrared iris? Bull. Am. Met. Soc. 82:417–432.

(4) Allocating carbon dioxide emission rights. 1997. naturalSCIENCE News Report.

Related articles in naturalSCIENCE

Peter Levin. 1998. Energy, environment and war. naturalSCIENCE Commentary.

James Hansen. 2000. An open letter on global warming. naturalSCIENCE Letter.

Other naturalSCIENCE items on climate change.

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