Ten years. In geological time, 10 years is hardly noticed—a speck of dust. But for sentient beings, much happens in 10 years. Children grow up, parents and friends pass away, wars start and end, presidents are elected and disgraced, political parties rise and fall. In the last 10 years around 1.2 billion babies have been born. Some will live to see the 22nd century. Most will have children of their own.
Ten years ago, the nations of the world gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to take action to prevent dangerous interference with the planet’s climate. Many hoped that meaningful steps would be taken to protect the Earth for future generations.
Ten years earlier, scientists working through the World Meteorological Society and the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the science of climate change. (The IPCC is the first 20-year-old to win a Nobel Prize.) By 1995, the IPCC concluded that there was a “discernible human impact on the climate.”
Banal as those words sound, their significance is overwhelming. They communicate awareness that our generation can irreversibly damage the Earth’s ecosystems for future generations simply by the way we live. Slowing down and stopping climate change will require societal change on a scale never contemplated previously. The Kyoto Protocol was a first attempt by the nations of the world to bring about this vast change.
Welcome to Kyoto
Kyoto in December 1997 was festive. I was there as an observer, with my background in energy policy and management resources, for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and was working in tandem with a journalist who was reporting for Salon. (It’s interesting to remember that, 10 years ago, Internet journalism was still a novelty.)
Kyoto residents, dressed up as rabbits, ducks, trees and other fauna and flora, marched through the streets in well-choreographed demonstrations. Melting penguin ice sculptures were placed at the entrance to the newly built conference center. Banners and placards in Japanese and English filled the air. A big pink “CO2” wrapped in chains with a leaf growing out of the last link was ubiquitous.
Then-Vice President Al Gore was a target of the creatively inclined. “Al Gore—Cut GHGs Now or Go Home” was a Japanese favorite. Some Aussies brandished a red banner with a bunsen burner burning the planet from down under. Greenpeace built a monstrous scrap-heap Tyrannosaurus Rex with a scorecard-style banner that read Dinosaur Diplomacy 1, Climate 0. A beautiful tapestry of a fierce Fudo Myoo, the Buddhist deity of fire, draped the sides of the Kyoto conference center.
Inside, activists from a plethora of NGOs scurried around, sleepless, trying to figure out what was going on in the closed-door negotiations and incessantly writing press releases. Business trade organizations set up booths promoting their technologies. The nuclear industry was calling for a nuclear renaissance. Enron announced plans to build a 50 megawatt solar power plant in the Nevada desert. Toyota passed out refrigerator magnets touting its new hybrid-electric eco-car that it promised to bring to market soon.
For the first seven days, the European Union and the United States haggled over how much greenhouse gases to cut and how much flexibility to provide in the treaty. Enviros complained the United States wanted so many loopholes—“flexibility mechanisms” to use the language of the diplomats—that the treaty would be toothless. On the eighth day, Gore flew in and told the U.S. delegation to compromise. Later, Gore symbolically signed the protocol on behalf of the United States.
Gore, who stated in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit that “we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” was an enigmatic figure for many attending the Kyoto conference. No political persona understood the issue of climate change better than Gore. Yet the Clinton-Gore administration risked little to move the public on an issue in which the Earth was in balance. Even before the Kyoto conference it was clear the Clinton-Gore administration would not fight for ratification of the treaty in the Senate. It may have been a question of timing.
Seven years later the treaty became international law, ratified by 169 countries. Among developed nations, only the United States and Australia have been AWOL (though last week Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd said he would ratify the protocol). A core principle of the treaty is that the nations of the world have “common but differentiated responsibilities” in controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. That phrase is an acknowledgment that the developed countries of the world are responsible for most of the damaging emissions in the atmosphere and need to take the first steps to reduce emissions. Developing countries, like India and China, are not required to meet specific emission targets during the first compliance period (2008-12).
The Bush administration has argued that the United States should not be compelled to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions since China is not required to do so. And although the United States never officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty was never sent to the Senate for ratification. From 1990 to 2005, U.S. emissions have increased by 16.3 percent. The Kyoto Protocol requires a U.S. reduction 7 percent below 1990 levels. Among European nations, only the United Kingdom and Sweden now are achieving real reductions in greenhouse gases. The most significant emissions reductions in the last 10 years have come from the collapse of industrial enterprises in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
A failed success
Looking back 10 years, it would be easy to argue that the Kyoto Protocol has been a failure. Without U.S. participation, it was doomed, at best, to only partial success. However, during the past 10 years the awareness of the impact of climate change and the impetus for strong action has grown. Devastating hurricanes, fierce wildfires, prolonged droughts and cataclysmic flooding have defined what is at stake. The consequence of inaction for the lives of those born in the last decade and their children is now obvious. The significance of Kyoto, beyond the details, is that there is now a viable international legal framework for dealing with climate change.
This month, the nations of the world will come together in Bali, Indonesia, to start negotiating for a post-2012 climate plan. What happens in Bali will set the stage for the next U.S. administration. It is hard to imagine that the United States will not want to re-engage the rest of the world on an agreement that is crucial for the health of the planet and future generations.
The magnitude of what needs to be done to stabilize the planet’s climate can hardly be understated. We must transform the ways we produce electricity, heat our homes, power our factories and transport ourselves. We need to cut the use of fossil fuels by at least 50 percent, and maybe more, by 2050. We don’t have any time to lose. ¸
Ed Smeloff has 20-plus years of expertise in energy policy and resource planning. He now works as a senior manager for project development at Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group in Southern California.
The Ice Man
When Al Gore and other global-warming experts want to come in out of the cold, they turn to Boulder’s Konrad Steffen
by Joel Warner
In the middle of a table in Konrad Steffen’s office at the University of Colorado in Boulder sits a strikingly beautiful globe composed of hand-carved gemstones. Steffen, a geography professor, knows very well that sooner or later the globe will have to be revised. The coastline will shift, swallowing the Nile River megadelta, flooding low-lying expanses of Bangladesh, encroaching onto the Florida panhandle.
On the globe, the changes will be a difference of millimeters, but on a worldwide scale they could mean the displacement of tens of millions of people. One of the main reasons: The Greenland ice sheet, a gargantuan expanse of ice roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico, is melting—and it’s doing so faster than anyone imagined.
Over the past few years, the ice sheet spewed 250 gigatons of ice into the ocean, or “two-and-a-half times all the ice in the Alps,” Steffen says, turning the globe and planting his finger in the center of Europe.
In October, former Vice President Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing attention to global warming. Earlier this year, the U.N. panel had published a report concluding that human influences likely were to blame for planet-wide climate change. The report warned that as rising temperatures melted glaciers and ice sheets and caused the oceans to swell through thermal expansion, sea levels would rise between 18 and 59 centimeters by 2100.
But Steffen, known to everyone as Koni, believes the Greenland ice sheet is deteriorating faster than predicted by these models. By the end of the century, he says, the oceans could rise by roughly three feet.
And when he makes predictions like this, powerful people listen. Steffen is a worldwide authority on Greenland’s ice sheet and the director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). The joint institution of CU and Boulder’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the largest research unit at the university, with a $50 million budget and a staff of 550.
In early October, just before winning the Nobel Prize, Gore visited Boulder to meet with its many celebrated climate scientists. Steffen wasn’t there—he was at a conference in Sydney—so Gore made sure they talked by phone. “He had follow-up questions at least as good or better than my graduate students,” the professor says.
Steffen’s recent research on Greenland’s ice sheet wasn’t included in the U.N. panel’s study because it had yet to be fully understood and peer-reviewed. But it will appear in a report he is preparing for the Bush administration. It’s an issue he hammered home several weeks ago during a presentation to Congress, where he was asked to explain how much of Greenland’s ice was melting each year. Enough to make a column of water encompassing the entirety of the District of Columbia and stretching nearly a mile into the sky, he replied. “That got some attention,” he says in a thick Swiss accent.
“Koni is a sensational researcher. The stuff he’s doing is really on the cutting edge,” says Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at NOAA and a lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning report. “He is right in the heart of what the key issue is for sea-level rise.”
It started in 1975, when Steffen, a grad student from Zurich, spent the summer studying the Arctic climate on an island 400 miles from the North Pole. Every summer and two entire winters since, he’s traveled to the Arctic Circle, and from 1990 onward he’s focused much of his attention on Greenland. “We knew more about the backside of the moon than we did about Greenland, data-wise,” he says. And summer on the ice sheet is a relative term. During the seven weeks Steffen and his team of grad students and scientists spend there each year, nighttime temps usually drop to 24 degrees below zero. “I seem to like the extremes,” he says. “I am not afraid of cold.”
Of course, he was probably a little afraid in 1979 when, while riding a snowmobile alone through the Canadian arctic, he got caught in an avalanche and was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he found his vehicle destroyed, a bone sticking through his leg and his dislocated jaw flapping loosely. He also had temporary amnesia. “I had no idea who I was; I had no idea where I was,” he says nonchalantly. “I learned by reading my field book.” When he was evacuated a day later, he’d remembered who he was and written a farewell letter to his girlfriend. That woman is now his wife.
In 1990, Steffen built a research station on the Greenland ice sheet, and by 1995 his team began experiencing a problem of a different sort—one that would form the basis for his future research: The station itself was coming apart. The living areas had been flooded with meltwater; monitoring towers sunk deep into the ice were toppling over.
This wasn’t expected to happen, since the station was located on the ice sheet’s “equilibrium line,” the point where winter snowfall was supposed to cancel out summer melt. But the melt had been outpacing snowfall, and the equilibrium line was moving. Although he had gone to Greenland to study the climate, he ended up studying climate change.
Over the next decade, they watched the average winter temperature on the ice sheet increase by six degrees, an amount so improbable that their colleagues at first didn’t believe them.
The ice, it seemed, was moving toward the sea faster than could be explained by rising temperatures alone. The researchers concluded that meltwater was making its way through the ice and lubricating the bedrock below. This allowed the ice to spread out faster and made it more susceptible to melting—which is why Steffen believes the U.N. panel’s sea-level predictions are significantly understated.
“This is something some glaciologists thought would not happen, and it had major implications about how fast climate changes could affect the ice flow, cause changes in ice mass and sea-level rise,” says Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist who tracked the speed of the ice.
“For someone so accomplished, [Steffen] has not received the same degree of public and media attention as some of our Boulder colleagues,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at CU and a CIRES fellow. “He is as accomplished as anyone in the climate community, but he is very careful in his public descriptions of the state of science and is very open about what is well understood and what remains subject to a high degree of uncertainty.”
Some scientists say the Earth could be entering a phase that hundreds or thousands of years down the road will lead to the complete dissolution of the Greenland ice sheet and raise the sea level by 21 feet. Worse yet, Steffen recently led a study showing that an area of ice the size of California had melted in west Antarctica, a region thought to be largely undisturbed by global warming.
But making people care is a challenge.
Climate “is never local,” he says. “Greenland shows the environment can change quite fast. We could see similar change here in Colorado.”
This summer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Steffen’s research station in Greenland. Both on the ice sheet and in Boulder, Steffen is participating in a research campaign called the International Polar Year, in which 5,000 scientists from sixty nations are focusing on what is causing—and what can be done about—the dramatic changes in Arctic and Antarctic regions. He is also planning a series of talks for the general public about climate change.
“You always ask yourself, ‘There is uncertainty. What happens if I send out the wrong message?’” he says. “But that was five years ago. Now there is no question the sea level is rising. I am starting to worry that my kids are going to have quite a different world from the one I grew up in.” ¸
Skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg questions the Kyoto Protocol’s effectiveness
by R.V. Scheide
Ten years after the Kyoto Protocol first was introduced, the question remains: What can be done about global warming? For the 175 countries that have ratified it so far, the treaty goes into effect next year. While participants from the developing world have agreed to reduce anthropomorphic greenhouse gases by more than half of their total output, the majority of the nations covered by the treaty are under no obligation to actually reduce emissions, and the world’s three largest polluters—the United States, China and India—aren’t participating in the protocol.
Complicating the question of what can be done is the fact that global warming is by no means the only peril facing the planet. The U.S. occupation of Iraq easily could spill over into a larger conflagration. Trillions of dollars worth of bad loans weigh down the global economy. Increasing demand and decreasing supply have driven up the price of petroleum to nearly $100 per barrel, with no end in sight. Poverty, famine and disease plague the developing world. Nuclear proliferation remains a very real danger.
Against this backdrop, Bjørn Lomborg says chill out.
Lomborg, a Danish political-science professor, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and controversial author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and the recently released Cool It, argues that the Kyoto Protocol, after weighing its costs and benefits against his interpretation of the relevant research on the threat posed by global warming, is poor public policy. In the United States, the Lomborg perspective has been embraced by conservative sources such as The Wall Street Journal and universally shunned by environmentalists, a situation that perplexes the 42-year-old, slightly left-of-center Dane.
“I’m a little disheartened that many of the people who like me are the people who I’d be least likely to like, where a lot of people who ought to be my friends, who I think of as my friends, are the most likely to be my enemies,” he admitted via telephone from Copenhagen, where he’s an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. “Sometimes I have the experience that some of my friends don’t even read me, and will just sort of say, ‘Oh, well he just doesn’t care about the environment at all. He’s just saying that we should go on and emit as much carbon dioxide as we can possibly get away with and it’s no problem.’ Which of course is not at all what I’m saying. I think both sides are in a sense making a caricature of what I’m trying to say.”
Lomborg doesn’t deny that global warming is a serious issue. He applauds Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth
for drawing the “American right wing away from the ‘Oh, it’s all a hoax. It’s all a left-wing conspiracy to raise taxes,’ kind of thing.” However, he adds that in doing so, Gore has “brought a lot of people far toward the panic side. That is to say, ‘My god, this is a huge and humongous problem that we really need to fix right now.’”
By far the most controversial aspects of Lomborg’s views—which he presented to Congress earlier this year, his blond, Scandinavian good looks and casual attire standing out like a surfer against a sea of button-downed bureaucrats and prominent environmental advocates such as Gore—concern what critics claim is his minimization of the crisis and the ultimate effectiveness of Kyoto.
“If no other treaty replaces Kyoto after 2012, its total effect will have been to postpone the rise in global temperature a bit less than seven days in 2001,” he writes in Cool It. Eschewing high-end scientific estimates, such as the 20-foot sea-level rise by 2100 projected in An Inconvenient Truth, Lomborg instead focuses his claims on the more probable averages provided by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At an estimated cost of $185 billion per year, Kyoto just isn’t worth it in Lomborg’s opinion.
“The problem with the Kyoto Protocol is not that it’s not well intentioned. It’s not that it’s not attacking a real problem,” he said. “Climate change is a real problem, and it’s definitely one that we need to fix in the long run. It’s simply that it fails to realize that it will cost a lot, and do very little good.”
Even if major polluters such as the United States, China and India signed on, there’s no guarantee that any country will adhere to Kyoto’s guidelines. When real limits are placed on the table, politicians back away, Lomborg said, citing recent experience in England. Members of Parliament just rejected a proposed annual emissions cut of 3 percent after being pressured by the energy lobby.
“It’s very easy to make promises when you don’t actually have to show the costs,” he said. “Famously, Kyoto was agreed upon in 1997, but won’t come into effect until next year, when politicians such as [Kyoto supporter] Tony Blair have left office. Likewise, Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which conveniently will probably be when he’s left office.”
Lomborg’s contrary assessments once earned him a literal pie in the face from activist and author Mark Lynas, who compares Lomborg and others who question climate-change orthodoxy to Holocaust deniers. Danish biologist Kåre Fog has devoted a lengthy website documenting Lomborg’s errors and alleged deliberate fabrications. Indeed, most of his critics find it difficult to restrain invective when discussing the controversial Dane, even in otherwise well-thought-out responses, such as the unprecedented, four-part critique in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, with separate sections written by climate-change luminaries Stephen Schneider, John Holdren, John Bongaarts and Thomas Lovejoy.
The article was an evisceration, to which Lomborg responded at length.
“I’m very willing to have an argument, and I think I’ve proven that fairly well by engaging a rather large number of people in how we should think about these issues,” he said. His critics claim he plays fast and loose with the numbers. He insists that he does not, and counters that his critics like to revel in catastrophe. World-threatening climate change is sexy. You’re not likely to see Brad Pitt “digging latrines in Tanzania” in the next Hollywood disaster epic. Doomsday must always be right around the next corner.
When asked why we find the threat of imminent disaster so compelling, Lomborg offered a cautious appraisal.
“It’s very important to say that I’m totally outside my area of expertise now, so I’m just giving you my gut sensation,” he said. “It’s because a lot of people are making a lot of claims, and the ones who are making panicky or catastrophic claims simply have better press. At the end of the day, the other things that I talk about—prevention of HIV/AIDS, prevention of malnutrition, prevention of malaria—those are just boring things.”
In 2004, Lomborg organized the Copenhagen Consensus, a collection of economists, including four Nobel laureates, to weigh the costs and benefits between such competing claims for limited public funding. A second Consensus last year was composed of ambassadors from around the world, including India, China and the United States. A key topic that has emerged from the Consensus concerns the inequality of incomes between the developed and developing worlds.
“At the end of the day, even if we end up convincing, by 2050, Europe and the U.S. to cut their emissions, the vast majority of emissions in the 21st century are going to come from developing countries,” he said. “They’re not going to care very much about climate change before they’ve fulfilled all their other discussions about getting a meal and getting education and getting health and also fixing their local environmental problems before they’ll start worrying about the global environmental problem.”
So what can we do about global warming from Lomborg’s perspective?
“Let’s focus on research and development. Let’s focus on non-carbon-emitting technologies like solar, wind, carbon capture, energy efficiency, and also, let’s realize the solution may come from nuclear fusion and fission,” he said.
Lomborg cited the prohibitively high price of solar power—presently 10 times the cost of fossil fuels—to illustrate his point. Currently, only a few relatively rich people in the developing world can afford to place solar panels on their houses. For poor people in the developing world, especially those who
are already in close proximity to an electrical grid, it simply isn’t an option economically.
“Imagine if we could make solar panels close to the price of fossil fuels by mid-century,” Lomborg asked. “It would be much easier to get everyone to commit to drastic reductions. Imagine if we could make it cheaper than fossil fuels. The discussion would be over. Everybody would switch. We wouldn’t have a
Is Lomborg right? Is the Kyoto Protocol destined to fail? Can we get more bang for the buck by focusing on R&D and providing more aid to the developing world? Only time will tell. Perhaps the contrary Dane’s most important contribution has been to show us that there may be other ways besides Kyoto to do something about global warming. A far worse prospect than Lomborg being correct is the notion that nothing we do will matter at all. ¸
R.V. Scheide is a senior staff writer for SN&R in Sacramento