Wealth of Nations December 2005

A Chill In Montreal Despite The Hot Air

The debate over global warming is marked by blithe complacency on one side and quasi-religious zealotry on the other. No wonder not much is happening.

Environment ministers from around the world have been meeting this week in Montreal to review progress in implementing the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and to decide what should replace that agreement when it expires in 2012. The gathering has been an unhappy one.

Most of the governments taking part had been advocates of the Kyoto approach. Many are now being forced to admit that the policy is failing—so embarrassingly that nothing similar is likely to take its place. As usual on such occasions, some face-saving scapegoating formula (you can guess which country is going be blamed) may emerge before the meeting wraps up. But the truth is that unless a new scheme is designed, there simply won't be an ongoing, effective, internationally coordinated effort to curb emissions of carbon to replace the failed Kyoto plan.

Will that matter? A lot of people in Washington think not. Some question whether global warming is even happening, and delight in mocking people (including the great majority of climate scientists, as it happens) who say otherwise and who worry about it. James Taranto's blog for The Wall Street Journal struck that familiar note a few days ago when it laughed at a recent headline linking the danger that temperatures in Northern Europe might abruptly fall with the broader issue of global climate change, as if to say, "Make your minds up, guys. Is the planet warming up or cooling down?"

Well, overall warming combined with Northern European cooling is a long-recognized scenario. The two phenomena are perfectly consistent, and it is hardly as though they cancel each other out. In the United States, this kind of blithe complacency on one side meets the quasi-religious zealotry of many environmentalists (who think consumption is evil and find the phrase "costs of abatement" disgusting) on the other. Even by Washington standards, neither side wants to think or to listen. If ever there were a dialogue of the deaf, this is it.

Yes, the failure of the Kyoto regime does matter. A well-designed response to the danger of global warming is needed. The Kyoto model was a dead end, to be sure: It has made getting to the right place far more difficult, and it has wasted more than 10 years. Even now, governments are reluctant to acknowledge that the whole thing was ill-conceived. But the issue of global warming is no figment of environmentalists' imagination—much as they may be given, as a group, to twisting and exaggerating evidence for tactical purposes.

The planet is warming, that much is clear. Man-made emissions of carbon are implicated, almost all climate scientists agree. The main uncertainties—and they are huge, to be sure—concern the rate of growth of future carbon emissions; the sensitivity of temperatures to those emissions; the net economic costs of rising temperatures (net, because there will be some offsetting benefits, and some countries will gain while others lose); and the risk of other climate disturbances if temperatures keep rising. In the end, this pattern of uncertainty was what made the Kyoto approach so flawed. But that, of course, is not to say—and this is the administration's position—that the issue of climate change is not urgent, and that there is no need for a bold, internationally coordinated policy response.

Climate change is urgent; there is just such a need. In the worst case, global warming is capable of doing great harm. The worst may not come to pass, but the risk still needs be to be recognized and, depending on the cost, reduced and/or planned for.

This is not a case where governments have to get out in front of voters. At least in the abstract (that is, before you start talking about gas taxes), people seem to want action. News coverage of Hurricane Katrina often discussed the association between global warming and the intensity of hurricanes. The story that the Taranto blog linked to—the finding that the Gulf Stream, which keeps Northern Europe far warmer than it should be, is slowing down, perhaps because of melting Arctic ice—was also widely reported. Such stories, sometimes spun but usually having a kernel of truth, are nudging American opinion. Even as the Kyoto process collapses, the political context for purposeful action is improving.

You could not tell that from Montreal, with ministers uselessly scurrying about, and acrimony all around. For once, this was not just a case of the United States against the world—though there was a lot of that, obviously. America spent the week trying to block efforts to start new formal negotiations on limits to carbon emissions. This gave other countries the customary opportunity for empty moralizing. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin declared: "To the United States... there is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it." A suitably Canadian sentiment, which the meeting's host was entitled to express, you might think—except that Canada is a leading Kyoto defector. Under the terms of the protocol, Canada promised to cut its carbon emissions, by 2008-12, to 6 percent less than their 1990 level. That will not happen. By 2003, Canadian emissions were already running at 24 percent above the 1990 benchmark.

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