The Peculiar Logic of Kyoto

Now that Russia has signed the Kyoto Treaty, thus making it possible to be ratified and enforced, what is the likely result of a few percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next seven years?

There are three possibilities: the average temperature will rise, fall, or remain constant. If it continues to rise, does this indicate:

— that a planetary climate is a system with such tremendous inertia that it responds very sluggishly to control inputs so we should not expect to see results for decades?
— that industrial gases are not in fact the principal cause of this latest global climate fluctuation?
— that a runaway greenhouse effect is already underway and cannot be stopped?

We don’t know. In fact, we can’t know. The problem with undertaking so grandiose an endeavor as planetary climate control is that we are attempting to govern a system that we don’t understand. We do not have a “control” earth to provide baseline data. We are like medical researchers testing a drug on a single patient. The only indicators that might suggest that our treatment has any effect at all would be instant recovery or sudden death. A gradual decline or recovery of the patient would tell us nothing about the efficacy of our treatment. Such is the case with the Kyoto Treaty.

Suppose, with the implementation of Kyoto, temperatures immediately begin to decline. We might reasonably conclude that our treatment was effective. But is this result necessarily desirable? If earth’s climate is that sensitive, might not a sudden reversal of a 3-century-long trend prove catastrophic? Might we in fact trigger a new ice age?

We don’t know. The relationship between greenhouse gases and global climate is incredibly complex. An increase in carbon dioxide levels can theoretically warm the oceans, thus generating more cloud cover, resulting in reduced sunlight to the surface and cooler temperatures. It can also accelerate plant growth which, in turn, reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide, again (theoretically) lowering temperature. By this reasoning, if we want to cool the planet we should increase carbon dioxide emissions, not curb them.

The logic of Kyoto seems to run along these lines: although there have been dozens of warming cycles in pre-industrial times, average surface temperatures appear to have risen quite sharply during the last several decades. Is this bad? Maybe. Are we responsible? Maybe. Can we do something about it? Maybe. Should we try? Of course!

So here we are, trying to control the climate. The only thing certain about the Kyoto Treaty is that debates about it have generated additional hot air. One wonders why environmentalists are not up in arms, protesting the incredible irresponsibility of this effort to alter the earth’s climate. We are like doctors prescribing random medication to a patient who may not even be ill.

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