It's Halloween time, and things are starting to get scary on the environmental front.
In two weeks at The Hague in the Netherlands, hundreds of scientists and government officials will gather at the Sixth Conference of the Parties to hammer out rules and regulations to deal with global warming. Appropriately acronymed COP-6, this United Nation's conclave aims to police and eventually arrest the emission of greenhouse gases from human activity.
It is an attempt to move along the protocol put forth at a 1997 conference in Kyoto, Japan. It called for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases worldwide by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. Under the agreement, not yet ratified by any industrial nation, the European Union would reduce its emissions by 8 percent while the Clinton administration promised the United States would cut its by 7 percent.
There's little support among the public here or in Congress for such efforts.
So, it is little surprise that some environmentalists are trying to scare up some now, especially when it might also be of benefit to their favorite candidate, Al Gore.
Last week, a summary of a draft report by the by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the press. It purports to show a consensus among scientists that mankind's burning of fossil fuels is influencing climate.
According to the summary, the panel concludes that if greenhouse emissions are not curtailed, average temperatures at the Earth's surface could rise 2.7 to nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That's about 60 percent more than the estimate of five years ago.
There's plenty of reason to treat skeptically the summary's supposed findings.
For one thing, the last time a summary of an IPCC report was released headlines blared hyperbolic claims about problems that proved to be far more tentatively stated when the final report appeared. The final version of this IPCC report isn't due out until May.
More important, other recent studies on Earth's warming have yet to support the doom and gloom based upon the IPCC's models of the effect greenhouse gases are supposed to have on climate. Satellite measurements of the Earth's temperature refined to a hundredth of a degree show only a 0.1-degree temperature rise in the last 21 years, with most of the effect a result of the El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific in 1997. Other studies show that a rise in oceans predicted by the models hasn't occurred.
Which leads to one final reason to treat the summary with great care: Vice President Gore has latched onto it as proof that he needs to be elected president.
"Big polluter… would say vote for George Bush or in any case vote for Ralph Nader, but whatever you do don't vote for Al Gore," he shouted at a rally in Wisconsin the day after the draft summary was leaked. "For 24 years, I have never backed down or given up on the environment and I never will in my whole life."
Such political posturing reinforces the skepticism expressed by climate expert Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about the summary.
Lindzen who is helping write one of the chapters of the IPCC assessment, continues to doubt that human activity has much to do with climate change. He describes the summary as "waffle words designed for one thing, to ensure that the issue remains important enough that it is not put on the back burner."
For the time being, that is where the issue belongs on the back burner, especially regarding government action. The world needs much clearer scientific evidence, not only about what is happening with global warming but what intelligently ought to be done about it.
After all, to explain why the Earth hasn't warmed up as much in the recent past as they forecast it would in the future, the IPCC modelers had to draw this startling conclusion "big polluters" are cleaning up their emissions too much. The sulfur and other particulates they used to send up into the atmosphere bounced back the sun's rays into outer space, helping to cool the surface of the Earth. Less pollution means less bounce and, to the modelers, more warmth.
On that score, the Clean Air Act of 1990 promotes global warming. And you can bet that Gore and other environmentalists don't want to go there.
Voters can also hope he really doesn't want to go on to meet Kyoto's arbitrary CO2 targets. The pain simply isn't worth the gain.
The American Council on Capital Formation estimates the cost of cutting energy usage to meet the Kyoto protocol would translate into a 1 percent to 4 percent loss of gross domestic product annually. That's $100 billion to $400 billion a year.
And for what? If all the industrialized countries met their targets, it would mean at best a 0.011 of a percentage point reduction in greenhouse gases. As Ronald G. Prinn, co-director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change, has observed: "Even with Herculean efforts in reduction, warming will persist."
Meanwhile, Kyoto literally left 80 percent of the world the developing nations, many of them big polluters out of the equation. Most have willingly signed onto the protocol because it places no obligations upon them to do anything.
As their countries industrialize, their greenhouse emissions likely will increase, at least through the early stages. To counteract that effect, the United States and other advanced economies would have to literally suck CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the air, according to Prinn. No one has figured out a way to do that.
All of this makes Resources of the Future President Paul Portney look almost prescient for his comment in 1999 that the Kyoto protocol didn't have "a snowball's chance in hell of coming into effect." And that's probably true even if Gore is elected.
No elected legislature will willingly jeopardize a nation's economy on the strength of a century-long weather forecast. Climatologists have yet to demonstrate that their models accurately can predict weather in the next year or next decade, much less the next century.
The reality of that human nature is fortunate. For despite what the environmental scaremongers say, the world loses nothing by waiting even if global warming proves to be real, which is still much in doubt.
For even then, the answer to the problem won't be government controls. It will involve scientists coming up with ideas, entrepreneurs making them practical and a free market spreading the new technology around the globe.
The track record of the last two centuries demonstrates the power of that paradigm. It also shows the danger of giving in to the extremists.
With the election drawing to an end and COP-6 drawing near, people need to be wary. For as last week's events make clear, the environmental bogeyman will try to get you, if you don't watch out.