June 15, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Foul weather over Kyoto

A definitive rollback of environmental standards championed by the Clinton-Gore government has been the clearest sign of change in American politics this year. With deliberate clarity, Bush has sought to drive the American economy down roads previously declared closed in the environmental interest. Arsenic standards in water, controls on carbon dioxide emissions, logging and road-building in protected forest areas -- victory in these early battlefields belong clearly to companies that profit from the extraction and exploitation of natural resources.

On the domestic front, it is uncertain how the US administration's efforts will be received. Working-class families in rural and forest communities often have little alternative to the short-term consideration of their employment opportunities, forcing compromises on issues of health and the environment. Indeed, support for anti-environment Republican positions is much stronger in the hinterland than in urban environs, and the political fallout the intelligentsia imagines isn't always a sure thing.

On the international front, however, the separation between acceptability and scorn is clearer, as are their divergent consequences. The Bush administration's stated intent to dishonour the 1997 Kyoto agreement has angered many European allies and hardened opposition to other objectives in military matters.

Long-debated discussions and the standards of environmental protection agreed to from them have been simply set aside, with the explanation that American economic interests do not permit the US to abide by those rules any longer. Kyoto, Bush argues, sells the American standard of living down the drain, and will extract an unacceptable economic price.

America's conventional allies appear torn between incredulity and anger. With their far greater liberal thrust, the European media have been quick to label the new president an unacceptable mix of incompetence and collusion, with prominent publications like Le Monde barely concealing scorn.

This unreserved criticism finds strength from nodding heads in the scientific community, among whose ranks only a small minority now swear loyalty to the Republican line. That anthropogenic [human-induced] effects on regional and global climate will be substantial is simply not in dispute anymore, notwithstanding researchers who regularly assert otherwise.

Earlier this year, we visited Garrett Hardin's old postulation of tragedy in the Commons, the continuing truth of which still limits our ability to develop meaningful environmental policies. When each nation merely strives to maximize the economic advantage it can derive from the environment, the inevitable result is calamity for all; that much is self-evident.

The argument for continuing exploitation, however, posits that scaling back the use of environmental resources will be extremely painful as well, and more importantly, immediate! The alternative we are offered is that corporations themselves will develop technologies at appropriate price-efficient points, and we must leave it to the markets to determine when such change should occur.

Surely, scepticism of that view is necessary, but it cannot be set aside entirely. The multi-billion-dollar question, no matter that one may decry or applaud President Bush's positions, is whether by ignoring the consequences of climate change, we will incur a greater economic cost in the future than by managing change in more environment-friendly ways today.

This is the rational counter offered by many environmental economists, and if true would clearly undermine any market-oriented solutions. The markets are typically conscious of price, and only rarely of purpose. Nonetheless, short-term economic security is a valid purpose and environmental concern cannot pretend otherwise. Amidst strongly held views on both sides, it bears examining what we can be certain of and begin there.

  • Rising emissions: Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are approximately 60 per cent higher now than in pre-industrial times. The record of this change is unambiguous. There are several other gases, the emissions of which have raised great concern, but carbon dioxide from various energy-extraction technologies is the one that attracts the greatest attention. Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, maintain a continuous record of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere at an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii; the last few decades of this record are shown here. Absolutely no one disputes the rise in concentrations.
  • The Greenhouse Effect: Carbon dioxide can absorb earth-emitted radiation at several wavelengths. One may think of this as follows. Every object emits some energy corresponding to its temperature; the earth does likewise. Gases in the atmosphere are capable of absorbing some of this energy; therefore by increasing the absorbing gases we raise the potential for absorption. This absorption of earth-emitted radiation by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases is similar to adding more blankets to your bed at night, and warms the surface.
  • Act locally, suffer globally: Various atmospheric phenomena are responsible for transporting emissions far beyond the regions in which they are emitted. Carbon dioxide is especially well-mixed in the atmosphere; for example, although most emissions from industrial activities occur in the northern hemisphere, the resulting increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide is quickly evident in data taken in the southern hemisphere as well.
Although more science and evidence will enhance our understanding, from only the three items listed above we may nonetheless draw the fundamental conclusion -- rising concentrations of absorbing gases will warm the earth's surface, all other things being unchanged. Once carbon dioxide is emitted anywhere on earth, atmospheric mixing and transport inevitably raises its levels around the world. The resulting greenhouse effect is a physical property of the gas itself; ie it is the nature of carbon dioxide to absorb earth radiation. Therefore, any effort to check global warming must address the only aspect we can influence -- future emissions. And since it matters very little where the emissions occur, extensive co-operation among nations is necessary. That was the foundation for Kyoto.

Outside the scientific community, one is most seized with the question of risk -- is human activity already changing climate noticeably? Responses range across the full spectrum of answers from an unambiguous "yes" to an equally certain "no".

Just how any part of the earth responds to warming largely depends on the type of surface we consider. An ice-covered surface may melt if its original temperature is very close to the melting point, whereas a much colder surface may not be perceptibly altered by slight warming. A warmer ocean may expand and cover some islands. It may also evaporate more water, and lead to greater amounts of rainfall. Everywhere on earth, many effects occur simultaneously, and their impact can be additive or counter-balancing.

The complexity of such responses permits diehard non-believers of any persuasion -- indeed, one readily finds takers for the view that human activities are more likely to cool the earth!

The natural climate is extremely variable, even in regions where we have recently heard of major trends, such as in coastal Antarctica where icebergs the size of small countries have broken away in recent years, to much news coverage. Witness the data from the polar station of Faraday/Vernadsky on the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile, and notice how, despite the overall trend towards higher temperatures, the data vary immensely from one year to the next. One may be inclined to think that on average, temperatures are rising, but a big drop one year nonetheless draws sceptics.

This variability allows those who resist changes in industrial activity to claim that climate change is "unproven" or "unimportant, even if true". Policy-makers are apt to find scientists to support any view they choose to endorse, and this is precisely why the consensus view must receive greater attention than marginal ones.

I accept the value of novelty in scientific thought, but the overwhelming evidence now suggests that climate change is real, and potentially harmful. Indeed, the seriousness of the scientific rationale is one reason why national governments and global scientific bodies rarely known for co-operative endeavour even gathered together to discuss solutions.

This past month, a glittering array of national science academies from throughout the world offered this statement in response to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report:

There will always be some uncertainty surrounding the prediction of changes in such a complex system as the world's climate. Nevertheless, we support the IPCC's conclusion that it is at least 90 per cent certain that temperatures will continue to rise, with average global surface temperature projected to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8C above 1990 levels by 2100. This increase will be accompanied by rising sea levels; more intense precipitation [rainfall] events in some countries and increased risk of drought in others; and adverse effects on agriculture, health, and water resources.

Some things never change, and other things change much without our acknowledgement of them. The procrastination of necessary modifications in our behaviour assumes that on the edge of catastrophe, we will set aside our differences and work for mutual advantage. ie, we assure ourselves that no matter our strong disagreement on how to respond to climate change today, when things get really ugly we will work more co-operatively.

The evidence for this belief isn't compelling, but we choose to embrace this view partly because it requires fewer sacrifices today and shifts the burden for change to future generations.

Bush's positions must be seen in the light of this. The travesty of his claim -- that he must defend American economic interests -- is that in the long run, those interests, including that of others around the planet, will almost certainly suffer from the choices he now promotes.

The political opportunism of promoting jobs, corporate welfare, and economic growth ahead of even the smallest consideration of environmental protection is galling. The European backlash to this partisan consideration of national interest is especially intense, in part because other leaders, notably in continental Europe, have summoned the wisdom and courage to push for co-operation, notwithstanding these exact same political considerations of their own!

It remains to be seen if the Kyoto protocol will survive the American challenge, or whether disagreeing US allies and traditional opponents around the world can force a more moderate and cautious approach to managing climate change than to merely leave the markets to find appropriate solutions.

Defeating Kyoto is ultimately a political objective, and the American president may well achieve that. Nature is not as easily bested. Statesmanship is the ability and willingness to recognise the difference.


  • The Mauna Loa data are republished by permission from Timothy Whorf, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
  • The Antarctic observations are republished by permission from Steve Harangozo at the British Antarctic Survey. Since 1995, the Faraday station has been operated by the Ukrainian government, under the name Vernadsky.

Ashwin Mahesh

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