THE LAST THING reporters expect to get at a press briefing is news. And the printed agenda for last Thursday's "Impacts of Climate Change on>"/>
THE LAST THING reporters expect to get at a press briefing is news. And the printed agenda for last Thursday's "Impacts of Climate Change on the Pacific Northwest" workshop gave no reason to expect any. When they took their seats in the UW Faculty Club conference room, the dozen or so science writers invited to attend already knew that reputable scientists think the world is getting warmer, the Northwest along with it, and that there's going to be less winter snow in our mountains, which means less summer water for hydropower, irrigation, salmon, and people.
We also knew that, even while we listened to UW experts like statistician Ed Sarachik and physicist Phil Mote explain the climate models that yield those predictions, representatives of 150 nations were assembled in Marrakech, Morocco, to hammer out an agreement to slow, and ultimately halt, global warming, despite the Bush administration's shameful refusal to take part in the process.
Well, we thought we knew that. Then, as we chewed our way through the sandwiches and fruit salad provided for lunch, an international marine-law expert named Ed Miles rose and, smiling broadly, went to work to tell us that what we thought we knew about global warming was wrong.
Far from being a modest step forward for international cooperation to protect the environment, Miles said, agreement in Marrakech could accelerate environmental catastrophe. And the U.S. pullout from the Kyoto accord, though for all the wrong reasons, may prove to be a crucial first step back from the brink.
As if that weren't bad enough, Miles also got low-down and personal: We science writers were responsible for getting out the real story on climate and Kyoto to our readers, he said, and so far we were doing a pretty rotten job.
Miles' heretical views on the Kyoto process are particularly disturbing because they come from a quintessential insider. Before coming to head the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, he spent the better part of 25 years studying, negotiating, and shaping international agreements on the law of the sea. There is hardly a politician, business leader, or scientist concerned with the subject with whom he is not on first-name terms. If he thinks Kyoto is a dangerous botch, he can't be the only one.
Miles' indictment of Kyoto is complex and difficult to summarize. It begins with a scientific-bureaucratic variation on the classic error of military strategists: planning to fight the next war with the weapons of the last.
When negotiators first met to draft international measures to counter global warming, their model was the very successful international agreement to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were progressively destroying the layer of ozone that protects living things from destructive ultraviolet radiation.
Bad model, Miles says: Only a few companies made CFCs, and adequate nondestructive substitutes already existed. Greenhouse warming, on the other hand, is an insanely complex phenomenon involving close to a dozen different compounds-some natural, some human-generated-each with a different chemistry, impact, and half-life in the atmosphere. Trying to control all at the same time and enforce the control worldwide is beyond the capacity of the international system of governance, even if the will to do so existed.
And, says Miles, it doesn't. If everybody who signed on to the original Kyoto Protocol met the carbon dioxide emission-reduction targets for the year 2010, it would cut atmospheric carbon dioxide by only about 10 percent. And nobody—nobody, says Miles, with the possible exception of Britain and Germany—is going to meet those goals.
Worse: Since nobody knows exactly what the "right" concentration of carbon dioxide would be, the Kyoto discussants have arbitrarily set the number at twice the "preindustrial" level of 280 parts per million. Last time anybody looked, the level was 370 ppm and headed for the roof. To meet the Kyoto standard, carbon emissions would have to be cut by 60 percent by 2100. It ain't going to happen. Get used to it.
What is going to happen? If you take the worst-case view, nothing-except continued warming, desertification, rising sea levels, and incalculable disruption of the biome. But, says Miles, thanks to the shortsighted selfishness of the Bush administration, there's a chance for a better outcome.
Not under Bush, of course. Miles says the best hope for slowing the current lemming rush to disaster involves massive investments in energy efficiency and conservation, financed in part by a "carbon tax" on every ounce of fossil fuel effluvium released into the atmosphere. Before the Bushies go there, the rising sea will be lapping at their dewlaps. But Bush & Co. are not forever.
The following op-ed column containing Professor Miles's analysis of the shortcomings of the Kyoto-Marrakesh process was sent by the author to the Seattle P-I, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post and rejected by each. It is published here for the first time.
U.S. POLICY TOWARD THE GLOBAL WARMING PROBLEM: TIME FOR A CHANGE
by Edward L. Miles
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor of Marine Studies and Public Affairs, School of Marine Affairs, and Senior Fellow, Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Oceans, University of Washington, Box 355685, Seattle,WA. 98195.
The recent decision by the Bush Administration to walk away from the Kyoto Protocol negotiations has infuriated U.S. allies and the rest of the world, reinforced fears of U.S. unilateralism in international affairs, and raised concern in a substantial portion of the U.S. public who view global warming as a serious problem. At the same time, this action has created the opportunity to initiate a major change in the direction of U.S. policy. The new direction to be elaborated rests on the assumptions that to attempt to negotiate hard targets and timetables for reducing emissions of CO2 cannot now yield significant reductions and that we should try coordinated national action among the advanced industrial countries first. However, because the U.S. has destroyed its credibility on the issue, we cannot approach others without first demonstrating our bona fides. Rest assured that in any case U.S. leadership remains essential to achieving effective international action on this problem.
On any objective basis, it is difficult to see the policy embodied in the Kyoto Protocol as a serious contribution to solution of the global warming problem. In fact, Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that if all nations whose representatives signed the Protocol, including the U.S., met all their commitments by 2010, the world would have succeeded in reducing the average global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by only 8-12% by 2100. By comparison, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) has called for stabilization of CO2 concentrations at a level that avoids "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" The U.S. has signed and ratified this Convention, but the level implied by the FCCC cannot be defined quantitatively at this time. The signatories of the Convention have therefore chosen informally the level of double the pre-industrial (1858-1860) concentration as the standard. This translates into 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of CO2. The world is now at a level around 370ppmv, which means that the rate of increase under a business as usual strategy has been fairly rapid. Moreover, Working Group I of IPCC has calculated that to get from where we are now to the doubling standard by 2100 would require a worldwide cut in emissions of 60%. Because such a policy would generate massive social pain on a global basis, it is simply not in the cards.
Supporters of the Kyoto Protocol argue that, while the step it represents is a small one, it is significant because it shows that the governments of the world can indeed work together on this most difficult of all global environmental problems we have ever faced and that the Protocol envisages iterative rounds of cuts according to a timetable to be established after 2010. The opposing view, which I share, is that this is such a difficult collective action problem, combining elements of high uncertainty with intense competition and conflict within and between societies, that international treaty negotiation cannot achieve bites big enough to matter while nature keeps adding up the bill. The Third IPCC Assessment Report exists as a final draft. It underscores that the earth is warming up. Humans are at least partly responsible. The world will very likely be a few degrees warmer in the 21st century. Generally, the poorest among us will be hit the worst. They will not be able to do much about it. The uncertainties that bedevil the scientific community do not involve the issue of whether there will be warming. The only uncertainties relate to the questions how much? When? With what impacts on natural ecosystems and human social systems?
What then should we do? Within the U.S., as is the case in much of the rest of the world, the political obstacles in the way of concerted action relate to the very painful trade-offs involved. (However, for countries like Bangladesh and the Pacific Island states, these obstacles dont exist internally because what is at stake is sheer physical survival). But U.S. industry oppose the Kyoto obligation to achieve a 7% reduction in emissions by 2010 because emissions are already at a level 18% above that line, and they are projected to grow an additional 16% by 2010. Most other advanced industrial countries, except possibly the U.K. and Germany, are unlikely to meet their Kyoto targets as well. The policy stakes are high: they include economic growth and development vs uncertain planetary scale effects of a wide variety, the uneven distribution of "bads" vs "goods," and a severe intergenerational equity problem. The scientific community does not know and cannot say what level of CO2 concentration will produce "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" But we do know that a business as usual strategy would produce a quadrupling of the pre-industrial ambient concentration in the 22nd century unless strong mitigation policies are instituted in the 21st century. The policy gridlock over mitigation, combined with the fact that nature is adding up the bill, suggests that a buying time strategy makes sense in the interim. Such a strategy would seek to push out the time horizon to irreversible changes in the climate system.
What are the possible components of a buying time strategy? Within the U.S. it would involve an intense emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation which would be most powerful if it included a price signal embodied in a modest carbon tax. This tax should reflect the true social costs of the fossil fuel economy. The policy, in addition, would involve a commitment to move away from coal, because there are enough resources to produce a world of eight to ten times the pre-industrial ambient concentrations of CO2. It would also require eventual phase out of oil, and a shift to a combination of natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables. Tax revenues could then be used to assist coal mining communities and the coal industry to adjust to the changes. These revenues could also facilitate the Federal Government to move aggressively, in partnership with all components of the energy industry, on a sustained, high priority research strategy aimed at developing non-carbon fuels. The Federal Government needs to take a very serious look at the entire suite of carbon sequestration options, already outlined in considerable detail by the Department of Energy. Because the global climate is changing and will change further in ways that are likely to surprise us, the Federal Government, in partnership with the States, need to mount a major national effort on planning for adaptation and to reduce anticipated vulnerabilities. In addition to the above, we will need a stepped-up investment in the scientific research to reduce the uncertainties inherent in the climate system and its impacts combined with a commitment to adaptive management on a systematic basis. In order to increase the incentives for industry to participate, we will need to combine a carbon tax with emissions trading and revenue re-cycling and implement a mitigation scheme for firms active in international trade through the use of border adjusted taxes which are designed to help firms remain competitive
in the face of regulation.
The Kyoto Protocol would not have achieved the reductions in emissions required to arrive at the doubling benchmark by 2100. It is also questionable whether the policies recommended above will result in stabilization by doubling. The steps required to achieve that result are so large that they most probably cannot be implemented. This means that the critical issue is whether we can escape tripling the pre-industrial ambient concentration level by 2100. That question, in turn, raises two additional questions for U.S. policymakers. How much risk can we tolerate? And how much insurance do we need to buy?