Science & Technology

Hot Air Conference

Urgent action on a non-problem


Some 4000 delegates from 188 countries have been convened since December 1 in Milan at the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The delegates will be joined later this week by at least 74 environment ministers from around the world.

The delegates and environmental activists had hoped that the COP9 would be the occasion for announcing that the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC had at long last come into force. The Kyoto Protocol has already been ratified by 100 or so countries but is not yet internationally binding. That's because it must be ratified by a set of industrialized countries whose collective emissions add up to 55 percent of their total emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001, which means that the 55 percent limit can only be reached if Russia ratifies the treaty. And that may not happen. Russia has been very coy about whether it will in fact ratify the treaty. Just last week, a prominent advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly suggested that his country would not ratify the treaty on the grounds that it would harm Russia's economic growth.

What happens if the Kyoto Protocol fails to come into force? The UNFCCC simply launches another round of negotiations in 2005 searching for a way to control future temperature increases. UN processes and bureaucracies never die.

The runup to the COP9 meeting has seen the publication of numerous ritual warnings that the global warming is worse than expected and that something must be done about it now. For example, the German Advisory Council on Global Change issued a report that warned that likely increases in global temperatures due to manmade causes over the next century would be "intolerable." Science, as part of a series on global environmental issues, published a review article this week in which a couple of US climate scientists declared that they have "no doubt" that human activity is affecting global climate. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has also just issued its Beyond Kyoto report that notes there are a huge number of scientific and economic uncertainties about climate change. However, rather than seeing these significant uncertainties as a reason for policy restraint, the Pew Center argues that "a strong message that emerges from the analyses here is that uncertainty should not be allowed to obscure the urgent need for action. To the contrary, uncertainty is itself a reason to act now." What urgent action is needed? Humanity must transform "the ways we generate and consume energy. In material terms, the challenge is to launch a global technological revolution. There is perhaps no historic precedent for so sweeping a technological transformation," declares the Pew Center report.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, rich industrialized nations are supposed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. It is now estimated that the emissions from industrialized countries will be 17 percent higher than they were in 1990. Furthermore, even if the industrialized countries could meet Kyoto's emissions reductions goals, it is widely acknowledged the treaty will achieve essentially nothing with regard to reducing whatever future temperature increases are in store for the planet. In order to stabilize the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide would have to be to cut between 40 and 60 percent by 2050. Considering that just meeting the Kyoto goals would reduce U.S. GDP by as much as 3 percent annually, the far deeper post-Kyoto reductions of carbon dioxide emissions would be devastating to the world's economy.

But is the world about to burn up because humanity is heedlessly burning fossil fuels that pour heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Third Assessment Report (TAR) in 2001 that suggested that average global temperatures could increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade (2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Of course, the higher increase was the one featured in headlines and cited by activists.

What's really going on? Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide, has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to about 370 ppm today. It is generally agreed that that doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would by itself increase average temperatures by only about 1 degree centigrade. The higher temperatures cited by global warming proponents arise from climate computer models that suggest that higher CO2 levels will lead to slightly warmer temperatures which will then increase the amount of water vapor in the air. Water vapor is by far the chief greenhouse gas, so more water vapor would mean higher temperatures. It is this positive feedback loop that leads some computer models to predict dramatically higher temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels.

However, as climatologists like Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Richard Lindzen point out, there are negative feedback loops in the atmosphere that tend to lower average temperatures. For example, Lindzen believes that he has identified what he calls an "infrared iris" over the Pacific Ocean that opens up allowing excess heat to escape into space. Essentially, Lindzen's iris is produced by increased tropical rainstorms that create a cloud free area over the Pacific that allows heat to escape into space.

Clouds are a big problem for the climate computer models relied upon by those who worry about damaging increases in global average temperatures. The models are just terrible at handling clouds. This is unfortunate because clouds could make all the difference. One of the surprising aspects of the Science article is that although the researchers claim that they have "no doubt" that humanity activities are increasing global temperatures, they admit that scientists "have yet to determine the temperature impacts of increased cloud cover." Given the crucial importance of clouds to the regulation of climate, it's hard to see how they could have "no doubt" about future global warming will cause significant harm.

Besides the climate computer models, are there other ways to peer into Earth's climate future? Yes—by extrapolating what we know has occurred in the past to the future. Just consider the trends implied by three temperature records: the satellite temperature records by University of Alabama at Huntsville climatologist John Christy; the those same satellite records as recently reanalyzed by Remote Sensing Systems scientist Frank Wentz; and the surface temperature record compiled by the IPCC. What do they reveal?

According to the somewhat spotty surface temperature record, average temperatures are increasing by about 0.17 degree centigrade per decade. The Wentz satellite data suggests an increase of 0.15 degrees per decade and Christy's data find temperatures increasing at about 0.074 degree centigrade per decade. Christy insists that his data have been independently confirmed by comparison with highly accurate weather balloon data. What he has done is compare his satellite measurements with measurements made by weather balloons at the same time and place. Christy finds that his satellite measurements and the balloon measurements match very closely.

Extrapolating the surface temperatures yields an increase of 1.7 degrees centigrade by 2100. Wentz' trend would result in a 1.5 degree centigrade increase and Christy's would be 0.74 degrees—all at the bottom of the range of increases identified by the IPCC. "We might see a degree of warming over the next century. None of those temperature increases is going to cause much of a catastrophe," says Christy. Even the alarmist report from the German Advisory Council on Global Change concluded that the world can tolerate a rise of up to 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.

So perhaps the delegates in Milan can just relax. Since they most likely won't, I'll be sending daily dispatches about the goings on in Milan. Ciao.