Climate change fervour cools

By Terence Corcoran
Copyright 1998 The Globe and Mail
April 28, 1998

THE long-range weather forecast is beginning to look cloudy and cool for the Kyoto Protocol. Approved just last December at a fevered meeting of politicians and bureaucrats from 160 nations, the protocol now appears to be running up against some stiff winds of opposition. Gone are the bold statements and calls for instant action to head off a global warming scare. In their place is a growing sense of caution, along with skepticism about the science. Some environmentalists are getting nervous.

Canadian politicians and activists are putting on a brave face. Federal Environment Minister Christine Stewart will be in New York this week signing a follow-up agreement of little consequence. Post-Kyoto conferences are taking place almost weekly. In Calgary next week, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will open a two-day climate change meeting where bureaucrats and corporate greens will attempt to convince themselves they know what they're doing. But doubts are growing.

Beginning with the science: Claims are crumbling that the theory of global warming is backed by a great consensus of scientists. Over the past two months, more than 17,000 basic and applied scientists have signed a petition against the Kyoto Protocol. The petition has been organized by Frederick Seitz, a former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a well-known opponent of climate change theory.

The petition states, in part, that "the proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind." It calls on the U.S. government to reject the Kyoto Protocol. The petition says: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and environments of the Earth."

Organizers of the petition say two-thirds of the 17,000 scientists who have signed so far hold advanced academic degrees. Their number compares with more than 2,000 scientists who allegedly backed the global warming reports prepared by the United Nations in 1995. In fact, few of those scientists signed any endorsement of the UN report.

With the science in question, Canada's political classes are also hedging their options.

When the country's environment ministers met in Toronto last week to plot Canada's post-Kyoto strategy, their public statements were filled with economic qualifiers rather than climate fears. "We will not do anything that would jeopardize our economy," Ms. Stewart said after announcing that an army of bureaucrats and consultants will spend the next two years and the better part of $150-million trying to figure out what the Kyoto Protocol means and how it could be implemented.

Alberta Energy Minister Steve West was even more resistant. "It has to be practical and attainable and reasonable for Canadians without jeopardizing our economy or standard of living."

Hitting those economic objectives would be a tall order in the context of Canada's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, principally carbon from fossil fuels. By the year 2010, Canada is supposed to reduced carbon emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 consumption levels. At current economic growth rates, that would require Canada to reduce emissions by 2010 by about 25 per cent.

Federal bureaucrats charged with working out the details are already doubtful that short-term timetables can be met. The next international meeting is scheduled for November in Buenos Aires, where the same group of nations will try to establish more specific national targets and establish the framework for an international emissions trading system. But Paul Heinbecker, Canada's assistant deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, told a recent Toronto conference that the "pace of the international agenda is getting ahead of the national agendas." He said the international agenda is a "bit too ambitious" and "I don't personally think it's going to work."

The scale of the task facing the country is at best monumental. In practice, it is absurd. Canada has committed to reducing carbon emissions by a set percentage when in fact nobody has a clue how much carbon Canada is responsible for, nor are there any known ways to measure carbon emissions. Attempts are also going to be made to measure carbon sinks, which include forests and farms that absorb carbon. Federal bureaucrats from different departments tour the country giving speeches outlining how little they know about the subject. Determining who emits carbon and how much is nothing more than a theoretical exercise, and allocating responsibility for emissions -- among provinces, sectors, industries, individuals -- could keep researchers busy for years.

Emissions trading, nationally and internationally, is attracting a lot of attention at meetings. One company, Sunoco, claims to have signed a carbon trading agreement, although in practice the deal is equivalent to Hilton Hotels announcing plans to design the first hotel on the moon.

The Web site for the science Petition Project is:

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