Editor’s note: Why do the elites meet? If governments exist to solve problems, what happens if the problem is solved? Worse still, what happens if there is no problem? Kent Jeffries, senior fellow at the Washington DC based National Center for Policy Analysis, takes an irreverent look at the recent Global Warming Conference in Berlin. While the opinions of the author are not necessarily those of EcoWorld, they are not necessarily not the opinions of EcoWorld, either. EcoWorld will publish in later editions differing opinions on the issue of global warming, and they are encouraged to be just as polemical as this one. Debate on whether or not the earth really is warming is not closed, at least not here. And whether or not the phenomenon exists, we will plant the trees…
Recently, over 1,000 representatives from 130 nations convened in Berlin to discuss the details of an issue deemed to be of the highest international importance. What was the topic that attracted so many of our diplomats, along with thousands of individuals from nongovernmental organizations? Peace in Bosnia, perhaps? Health care in the Third World? No, nothing so trivial as that. The participants at Berlin gathered to discuss the weather..
Technically, Berlin was playing host to the first session of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Framework Convention is the document which is intended to lead us out of the wilderness of global warming and into the ecological promised land. The basic premise behind this theological position is that humanity is consuming too much in the way of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons and thus, when burned, they produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (the same gas you expel with every breath) has the ability to block certain wavelengths of infrared radiation. This can “trap” infrared heat near the earth’s surface and – voila! – global warming.
Few dispute the physics of heat-trapping, or “greenhouse” gases in the atmosphere (most of which consists of water vapor). However, even if human activities are contributing to a gradual increase in the less important greenhouse gases, it is unknown precisely what the effect will be: An overheated hell or a veritable Garden of Eden? Or will we even notice the changes, should they occur? Obviously, most of the participants at Berlin from wealthy, industrialized nations are convinced that dire consequences are inevitable if the levels of greenhouse gases continue to escalate.
Of course, the science behind this fearsome future is a bit sketchy. To be sure, certain observations can be seen as broadly consistent with a human-enhanced greenhouse effect. However, current scientific observations do not conform to predictions of doom. In the United States (which has better records and better coverage by weather stations than most parts of the globe, despite only covering about 2 percent of the earth’s surface), temperatures have increased somewhat during the twentieth century. Surface measurements indicate a rise of approximately 0.3 degrees C. (about 0.7 degrees F.). However, essentially all of this warming occurred during two brief episodes, one from the late 1920s into the 1930s and the other during the 1970s (which itself followed a modest cooling trend of some twenty years in duration). Even more perplexing, the first brief warming period occurred before any significant increase in greenhouse gases from human activities. And the U.S. trends are similar to the results from global data sets. These facts confound the fearmongers and reassure the skeptics. Was the century’s slight warming the result of manmade emmissions or simply and example of the natural variability of the climate? To date, we cannot confirm the existence of global warming through analysis of surface temperature records.
In addition, more recently available data derived from highly accurate satellite-based instruments make any claim of global warming even less tenable. Since 1979, when the first satellite data became available, there has been no net warming of the globe. We now know that these satellite temperature readings are incredibly accurate. New studies have confirmed that these instruments are so sensitive to temperature fluctuations that they can detect the minute warming of the earth due to the radiance of the full moon. Yet despite their exquisite sensitivity to temperature changes, these satellites have not detected any increase in global average temperatures. Temperatures have gone up and down, but, taken altogether, there has been no measurable increase in temperature.
In other words, there has been no net warming in the earth’s temperature record in almost twenty years.
Here, it is the global warming adherents who turn skeptical. They point out that the second period of distinct warming in this century ended just prior to the launching of the first satellite. Furthermore, they discount the satellite data because it only covers about 17 years thus far, too brief a period of time in which to detect the true trends, they say. Of course, shourt-term observations are often put forward as proof of global warming; everything from a summer drought to animal migrations has been suggested as evidence of the overheating of the climate.
For every question, it seems, there is an answer; for every answer, another question. In any event, the scientific investigations will continue, as they should. Yet those who call for an international agreement to limit greenhouse gases continue to push a “leap before you look” strategy. It seems that no evidence of a benign or nonexistent warming will be accepted by these folks. Instead, they assert that it is the duty of the developed nations to radically cut fossil fuel use.
Most economists agree that the only way to dramatically reduce consumption of fossil fuels is to levy a heavy tax on their use. But a tax intended to drive down consumption by even 20 percent would be economically ruinous — and many are demanding cuts of 50 percent or more. Energy may be only one of the factors in stimulating economic growth, but it is a crucial one. Developing nations such as India and China strongly resist any effort to restrict their consumption of fossil fuels. These nations understand the historic correlation between fossil fuel use and national wealth creation: the more you burn, the more you earn.
Despite this resistance on the part of the patient, the diplomatic doctors in Berlin insisted that limiting greenhouse gas emissions would be especially beneficial to the developing world. They argued that significant global warming would disrupt world weather patterns and that the less developed nations would suffer enormously from droughts, floods, crop failures, and plagues of insects. Just like today, only worse.
Yet carbon dioxide is absolutely necessary for plant growth. Numerous studies demonstrate significantly increased crop yields due to nothing more than higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Seen from this perspective, the industrial nations already are providing billions of dollars worth of free fertilizer to the Third World via the atmosphere. To stop now might be much more harmful than any resulting warming.
Regardless of these scientific uncertainties, if one truly believes that profligate consumption will destroy the planet, shouldn’t one at least cut down a bit on one’s personal consumption? For example, why not stay home? Stop consuming our precious natural resources (and our even more scarce tax dollars) by travelling to international conferences. Teleconferencing, or “virtual” meetings, could replace these physical gabfests. But don’t hold your carbon dioxide laden breath waiting for these elites to sacrifice personally. The motto of this crowd well could be “Sacrifice is for the little people.”
Berlin was merely the latest manifestation of a process that has involved over a dozen similar, preparatory meetings. These have included what was billed as the largest single conference in world history (perhaps 30,000 in attendance) at Rio de Janiero in June of 1992 — the so-called Earth Summit. The Rio Earth Summit actually produced the Framework Convention itself. This document calls upon signatory nations to constrain their emissions of carbon dioxide (and other gases) to no more than the levels that prevailed in 1990. They are to do this by the year 2000.
Yet only a handful of the pledging nations have any chance of achieving this goal and that is but a fortunate coincidence, not the result of any national commitment. For example, reunited Germany has shut down the inefficient industrial dinosaurs of the former East Germany. This would have been done even in the absence of a climate treaty. Elsewhere, there seems to be scant support for any push to strive any harder. Hence, Berlin has produced almost no concrete commitments on emissions reductions. Not to worry. You may not be able to do anything about the weather, but these globe-hopping diplomats will go almost anywhere to talk about it.
Anywhere, that is, that has a four star hotel and a vibrant nightlife. Most of these international meetings have taken place in cities such as Stockholm, Geneva, and New York. Is it any wonder that the negotiators find the need for more and more of these face-to-face gatherings?
Among those who fear global warming, the Berlin Conference is generally recognized as a failure. Yet, from the perspective of the participants, Berlin could be considered a glorious success. By failing to produce any concrete results, Berlin guarantees another round of jet-setting international negotiations. Sure it’s a tough life, but somebody has to make the sacrifice.