CLIMATE CHANGE IS HEATING UP again in American politics, the result of an orchestrated campaign to push the issue to the forefront. Al Gore is hitting the road with his animated computer slide show and has a documentary movie coming out. Climate action advocates skillfully exploited the Bush administration's clumsy moves to limit the public statements of NASA's chief climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, and landed panicky stories about climate "tipping points" and scientific censorship on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. The real head-turner, however, was the recent launch of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, in which nearly 100 evangelical leaders signed on to the environmentalist party line. Some are the same liberal evangelicals who tub-thumped for the nuclear freeze during the Reagan years, but some are conservative evangelicals important to Bush's red-state base, such as Rick (The Purpose Driven Life) Warren. When the eco-apocalypse meets the New Testament apocalypse, you know something is up. That something is a sense of political desperation among climate change alarmists, as the world slowly turns against them.
If there is any subject more certain than the federal budget process to bring on eye-glaze, it is global warming and the drearily repetitive argument about the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The issue combines the worst of wonky numerology (parts per million of various gases, complex computer models, opaque cost-benefit analyses), an alphabet soup of unctuous international bureaucracies (IPCC, UNFCCC, SRES, TAR, USGCRP, etc., etc.), and the incessant braying of interest groups. No wonder Al Gore loves it so much. Yet the issue, seemingly stuck in a rut for almost two decades, is starting to shake loose and head in new directions.
How do you go about sorting out sense from nonsense? Very few people who follow closely the subject of climate change argue that there's nothing to it. There is unanimity that the planet has warmed by about 1 degree over the last century. Just about everyone agrees that the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels cannot continue forever. That's where the agreement ends. The range of possible temperature increase over the next century is fairly wide in the official forecasts, from 1.4 degrees Celsius on the low side, which might not be difficult to cope with, to 5.8 degrees Celsius on the high side, which would mean major environmental problems for the planet. How probable is any point along the distribution? For reasons having to do with the cascading statistical uncertainties of the thousands of variables in computer climate models, we can't assign a probability to any narrower range of temperature forecasts, though very clever people are trying.
So for most of the last decade we have been playing a back and forth game with signs and wonders that are offered as confirmation that catastrophic global warming is well under way. But these tend to be as controversial as the computer climate models. As good as our measurement techniques are, there is still large disagreement about basic facts. Are the polar ice caps melting or growing thicker? Both, depending on what data set you consult. Is the last decade the hottest in 2,000 years? You need a flak jacket to survive the crossfire on this one. Can variance in solar radiation account for some or most of the warming we've experienced to date? Better put on a second flak jacket. Do clouds warm or cool the planet? Both, and understanding the balance between their conflicting effects remains a huge problem for climate models. Are ocean temperatures rising and Gulf Stream currents changing? Probably, but we need better data to be sure. Will hurricanes get worse? Get a helmet to go with your flak jacket, and put FEMA on speed-dial. Aren't scientists overwhelmingly in agreement that the science is "settled"? Well, yes, except for the hundreds of scientists who've signed various statements and resolutions saying we lack adequate mastery of the subject.
At this point even most people with a scientific background throw up their hands and say, "Call me back in 50 years if I need to turn up my air conditioning." It does no good, as global warming skeptics and many official climate science reports often do, to call for reducing "uncertainty" in climate science. The uncertainties of climate change have less to do with the enormous complexity of the linkages of the various earth sciences comprising the issue, and more to do with the stakes involved. With near-term global greenhouse gas suppression costs called for at Kyoto calculated in the multiple trillions of dollars ($37 trillion according to one widely accepted estimate), political considerations magnify the importance of nailing down uncertainties beyond the ability of science to do so. In fact, with a subject as sprawling as climate change, the disciplinary diversity of science is going to magnify rather than narrow uncertainties.
Ultimately, policymakers will have to exercise their best judgment rather than wait for oracular scientific conclusiveness, which will never come. Notwithstanding the relentless drumbeat of studies offered as proof of onrushing catastrophe, policymakers are rightly wary of handing over the keys of the economy to the very same people who brought us the population bomb that turned out to be a wet firecracker, predicted imminent resource scarcity, which also fizzled, and even, in the 1970s, hyperventilated that our greatest climate risk was a new ice age. (The ice age scare was not the tiny sideshow climate action advocates today try to claim that it was; the EPA in the early 1970s thought one reason to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions was that "aerosols" like SO2 were reflecting too much sunlight and increasing the risk of cooling the planet.) The suspicion of hidden agendas is buttressed by the default position of the most vocal environmentalists and the front-page-seeking reporters who cover the climate beat: They greet with complete credulity the most extreme forecasts and portents, whether it is melting ice, boiling oceans, or expiring frogs.
This is more than just a problem of having cried wolf too often; there seems to have been little introspection or second thoughts among environmentalists about why their Malthusian alarms rang false in the past. Given their track record, why should anyone believe that this time the alarmists have it right? There has been only grudging acceptance among environmentalists of the positive role of economic growth, the resiliency of human beings, and the dynamic world human ingenuity creates. It might be possible to grant more credibility to the alarmists if there were signs that their current analysis incorporates fundamental corrections of their previous neo-Malthusian frameworks. The recently released U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment appears to go some of the way toward this kind of reappraisal, but the 12-volume (so far), 3,000-page report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read or comprehended.
THIS BRINGS US to the official effort to assess climate change for the purposes of making policy: the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the abstract the IPCC deserves it due. The effort to get to the bottom of climate change may be the largest scientific inquiry in human history. It requires the coordination of thousands of specialists, the development of whole new scientific techniques, and the refinement of elaborate computer models that need weeks to run on the world's most powerful supercomputers. Even discounting for the inherent weaknesses of computer models, this kind of sustained effort is likely to generate valuable knowledge in the fullness of time. Producing a coherent report every few years that combines all of this work is an extraordinary feat. The IPCC is currently well into the process of producing its Fourth Assessment Report, due out next year.
The problem with the IPCC process, however, is that the scientists and experts participating in each iteration have become increasingly self-selected toward those with a taste for climate alarmism. Past reports, especially the Second Assessment Report in 1995, were badly politicized by U.N. bureaucrats, misrepresenting the "consensus" the report actually contained. Rumors abound of internal political pressures to "sex up" the reports to make the case for the economically ruinous Kyoto agreement more compelling. Honest skeptics qualified to participate have found the consensus-oriented IPCC process too frustrating and have dropped out. For example, Richard Lindzen, a participant and chapter author in the Third Assessment Report in 2001, is not participating in the next round. More and more, the IPCC is becoming an echo chamber for one point of view, and is closed to honest criticism from the outside. They have not merely rejected criticism; in the fashion of environmental activists, they have demonized their reasonable critics.
The case of David Henderson and Ian Castles is a good example. Henderson, the former chief economist of the OECD, and Castles, a highly regarded Australian economist, noticed three years ago a serious methodological anomaly in the IPCC's 100-year greenhouse gas emission forecasts, which are the primary input for the computer climate models. Henderson and Castles made a compelling argument that the forecasts were unrealistically high. Everyone recalls the first day of computer science class: garbage in, garbage out. If future greenhouse gas emissions are badly overestimated, then even a perfect computer climate model will spit out a false temperature prediction. If Henderson and Castles are right, it means we may have more time to address even the most alarmist global warming forecasts. Since Henderson and Castles opened the debate, the IPCC's emissions forecasts have been subject to withering criticism from dozens of other reputable economists, including from a number of climate alarmists who, to their credit, argue that this crucial question should be got right.
The IPCC's reaction to Henderson and Castles was startling. The panel issued a vituperative press release blasting the two men for peddling "disinformation." A few scientists and economists connected with the IPCC had the decency to say publicly that the press release was a regrettable error. But it is typical of the increasingly arrogant IPCC leadership. The IPCC's chairman, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, compared Danish eco-skeptic Bjorn Lomborg to Hitler because of Lomborg's wholly sensible and well-founded calculation that near-term emissions reductions make no economic sense. "What is the difference between Lomborg's view of humanity and Hitler's?" Pachauri told a Danish newspaper in 2004. "If you were to accept Lomborg's way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing." It is hard to have much confidence in an organization whose chairman can say this and keep his job. (The reductio ad Hitlerum is contagious: Two weeks ago NASA's James Hansen compared having a Bush political appointee listen in on his media phone calls--an obnoxious but routine practice in the federal government--to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, eliciting rapturous applause from an audience in New York. And Hansen wonders why people call him an alarmist.)
Moreover, despite the cascade of criticism of the IPCC's emissions forecasts, the same set of forecasts will be used in the next round of climate models, assuring a defective result. The IPCC says it would take too long to do a fresh set of forecasts. Despite the IPCC's wall of resistance, the consensus is coming around to the Castles and Henderson view that the IPCC has done a poor job of handling this important aspect of the issue. Nature magazine, normally aligned with the alarmists, editorialized in January that the IPCC's "macroeconomic assumptions . . . ought really to be discarded as wishful thinking," and criticized the IPCC for not incorporating "economists' latest thinking" in their next assessment.
Given its size and the imperatives of bureaucracy, the IPCC monopoly on official climate science is probably unreformable. What it needs is competition--the equivalent of the famous "Team B" of Sovietologists at the CIA in the 1970s. A robust independent effort at assessing climate science would have the tonic effect of making the IPCC behave with more circumspection in its methodology and judgment. In the absence of a full-fledged Team B effort, governments ought to require greater involvement of their finance ministries. It is astonishing how aloof most government finance ministries are to the entire IPCC and Kyoto process; in most European governments (and in the U.S. government, too), the whole mess is left to environment departments and foreign ministries, assuring a high level of economic naiveté.
There is some movement toward broadening the climate portfolio and introducing some competitive analysis, especially in Britain, which has set for itself the most ambitious emissions cuts of any nation, aiming for a 60 percent reduction by the year 2050. Her Majesty's Treasury has embarked on a full-scale review of the economics of climate change science and policy, coincidentally right after a bipartisan select committee of the House of Lords issued a blistering report on the deficiencies of economic analysis of the issue.
THIS IS MERELY ONE SIGN of the crackup of the global climate change caucus. Slowly, most governments are coming around to what has been President George W. Bush's position on the matter since taking office in 2001: The Kyoto Protocol is a nonstarter. With just a few years to go before the end of the initial target date of Kyoto, almost no nation is on course to meet its targets (except those Eastern European nations who saw emissions reductions from shuttering defunct state-owned industries after the Soviet Union dissolved, and even there the trend is again upward). Even though Britain is the one European nation that has come closest to fulfilling its Kyoto commitment, ironically it is Prime Minister Tony Blair's acknowledgment that the climate change emperor isn't wearing any clothes that has brought new candor to international discussion of the issue.
The first sign of this new realism became evident at last July's G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, which Blair hosted. Many observers expected that President Bush would come under renewed pressure to relent in his opposition to Kyoto's binding emissions caps. However, the statement issued at the G-8 summit appeared to be a vindication of Bush's perspective. One portion of the G-8 communiqué adopted the exact language the Bush administration has been using since 2001: "While uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science, we know enough to act now to put ourselves on a path to slow and, as the science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gases." The communiqué's policy guidance placed greater emphasis than previous statements on economic growth, technological innovation, and--above all--adaptation to climate change. "U.S. Appears to Win Global Warming Debate" was the dismayed Associated Press headline from Gleneagles.
Then in a September 15 appearance at former President Bill Clinton's "Global Initiative" conference in New York, Blair dropped a bombshell: "I would say probably I'm changing my thinking about this in the past two or three years. I think if we are going to get action on this, we have got to start from the brutal honesty about the politics of how we deal with it. The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem." Blair added: "To be honest, I don't think people are going, at least in the short term, going to start negotiating another major treaty like Kyoto."
This was not a one-off comment from Blair, but reflected his serious reconsideration of the state of play, as his follow-up comments made clear. "It's easy to take frustrations out on the Bush administration," Blair wrote in the Observer in October, "but people forget that the Senate voted 95-0 against Kyoto when Bill Clinton was in the White House. We have to understand as well that, even if the U.S. did sign up to Kyoto, it wouldn't affect the huge growth in energy consumption we will see in India and China." While not abandoning the idea of a successor treaty with "targets and timetables," Blair shifted his emphasis to accelerating technological development and technology transfer to the developing world.
Blair was soon seconded by his science adviser David King (who had previously said that climate change was a larger world threat than terrorism), who said, "I don't think any country is going to manage a process where the suspicion is that they will need to reduce their GDP growth." And Blair's environment minister, Margaret Beckett, followed with comments to the effect that industrialized countries that insist on binding global emissions targets would be considered "the new imperialists" by developing nations: "People would never engage in dialogue if they thought the outcome was preconceived and could hamper their development. . . . Such an approach would be utterly destructive to any kind of agreement." Beckett suggested voluntary targets, "informal mechanisms," and industry-specific emissions programs would be a more suitable way to go forward after Kyoto's initial commitment period expires in 2012.
As Blair has one of the keenest political noses for future trends and possibilities, his perspectives are worth giving considerable weight. Environmentalists in Britain were furious. The executive director of Friends of the Earth said Blair's comments were "extremely retrograde and dangerous. . . . It's seismic in climate change politics and threatens 15 years' worth of negotiations." Greenpeace dumped several tons of coal near 10 Downing Street. A spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund delivered the vilest insult imaginable in British politics: "The actual negotiating position of the prime minister becomes daily less discernible from that of U.S. president George W. Bush."
The final game-changer was Bush's successful initiative to launch the Asia-Pacific Partnership (APP) last summer. The APP consists of the United States, China, India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, which together account for about half of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. As such the APP represents an alternative to the U.N. process that gave us Kyoto, and may one day put the U.N. climate change process out of business. As the new year began, the APP held its first meeting in Sydney, Australia, and began to articulate an alternative strategy to the Kyoto approach. The APP emphasizes as its first priority economic development and the eradication of poverty. It also struck notes of realism about energy use, observing that "fossil fuels underpin our economies, and will be an enduring reality for our lifetimes and beyond." The partnership members pledged more resources for advanced energy research, but also for work on making current fossil-fuel energy cleaner. The real game afoot behind the APP is probably to accelerate the transfer of advanced technology to India and China, whose greenhouse gas emissions are expected to soar in the coming years if they use current fossil fuel energy technology.
These developments suggest that however more convincing the scientific case for serious global warming may become, most world leaders are recognizing that near-term emissions reductions aren't a sensible way to begin moving to a post-carbon energy future. Twenty or thirty years from now we are likely to look back on the Kyoto Protocol as the climate-policy equivalent of the discredited wage and price controls of the 1970s, even as the climate prediction models themselves may come to resemble the elaborate Keynesian models that were supposed to enable us to fine-tune the economy with perfect precision. The Keynesian understanding of the economy was not wholly wrong, but fell far short of the mastery of detail its backers claimed. Climate alarmists like to warn us of the danger of severe climate "surprises" that may come our way. But if we're really taken by surprise, what does it tell us about the limitations of their models?
Is there--to extend the analogy--a "supply-side" analogy for climate policy? Amazingly enough, a hot topic among environmental economists is the positive relationship between economic growth--the central pillar of Bush's climate strategy--and environmental improvement. There is even a conceptual curve for it, known as the "Environmental Kuznets Curve," that can be scribbled on a napkin. It looks just like the Laffer Curve.
Steven F. Hayward is F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of AEI's "Environmental Policy Outlook."