Noted newspaperman and professional curmudgeon H.L. Mencken once said that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Were he alive today, we suspect Mencken would have also clobbered a few "practical" newspapers with that remark. But in any case, the watchword in Kyoto this week and next is most certainly practical politics.
Some 166 countries are represented at the Climate Treaty talks--10 days of handwringing and hyperventilating over a putative global warming. The United States alone is sending 80 delegates and staff; their hotel and restaurant bills passed along to U.S. taxpayers. And while such a gathering gives a big boost to airlines and the local Japanese economy, we would just like to point out that the large numbers of delegations and even larger numbers of delegates serve an important purpose in the realm of international wheeling and dealing: 1) they create internal pressures to sign something--anything--and thus avoid having the meeting appear too obviously a waste of time and money, and 2) they effectively spread the responsibility so thin that no one person can be blamed if the short- or long-term outcome is a disaster. What a deal.
But there were encouraging signs on opening day. Undersecretary of State Stu Eizenstat stated that the U.S. delegation was "not going for an agreement at any cost" and Al Gore, speaking from Washington, made manly talk about walking away from a bad treaty. One delegate mused that wrapping up a global warming treaty would make the old arms control negotiations seem simple by comparison.
No doubt part of what is making it a tough sell is the revelation, slowly seeping out to the public, that a 5 percent emissions cut below 1990 levels actually works out to a 25-35 percent cut by Clinton's deadline a decade or so down the road. By then, both he and Gore, if Gore's elected president, are safely out of office, putting the unpopular decisions on someone else's watch.
Offstage for now, the man who's been breathlessly promoting the global warming issue for more than a decade is carefully choosing his moment. The White House announced that President Clinton "had directed" Mr. Gore to attend for just one day, but the particular day has yet to be decided. If the delegations negotiate mandatory emissions limits and it looks like Clinton can sell it, Gore will march in in triumph.
But it is significant that he will not be there working the floor and whipping up the troops--the unelected, self-appointed Big Environment contingents that have been so successful in imposing their will on such meetings in years past. Certainly they were in on the initial strategy sessions. Ron Bailey reported in the October issue of Forbes that the heads of the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Naderite U.S. Public Interest Research Group all met with Gore and Clinton at the White House on September 15. They've done their part, now what?
Interestingly, Dr. Robert Watson, new chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has signalled his intent to create a new activist role for the IPCC. Earlier this year, Watson told Greenwire that his goal for Kyoto was "to get something on paper that is legally binding." "We have to get a target to reduce CO2 emissions in the range of 5 to 15 percent [below 1990 levels] starting sometime around 2007 or 2010," he says, though he also indicates he'd be satisfied with any "binding" target. This is quite a departure from Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin, IPCC chairman for 8 years, who kept a lower profile in finessing the science and politics on this issue. Watson, a former Gore appointee at the White House, chaired the IPCC's Working Group II, which wrote the IPCC report summary claiming that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate."
Meanwhile, the old shell game is going on in Britain, where government ministers have decided not to publish cost estimates for renewable energy. The British government wants 10 percent of the electricity in the United Kingdom to come from renewable energy sources by the year 2010--part of its climate change strategy--and it is willing to promote it with a subsidy of up to 300 million pounds sterling. According to a report in the Nov. 25 Financial Times, this triples the current program, and the UK government is afraid that calculating the potential cost of implementing UK greenhouse cuts will raise a public outcry, since costs will be borne by electricity consumers. An alarmed public is not something they want to contend with during Kyoto.
In these last few days leading up to the conference, everyone it seemed was waving a survey claiming to reveal the true feelings of the American people on global warming. The New York Times, however, wins the prize for the best spin, headlining its survey "Public Backs Tough Steps for a Treaty on Warming" (Nov. 28). Huge majorities, says the Times, favor CO2 curbs at any cost, regardless of whether other countries agree to similar measures or not.
But in paragraph 10 we learn that only 1 percent of those surveyed think the environment is the most important problem facing the country (most said crime). And when asked to elaborate on specifically environmental concerns, only 7 percent named global warming, while 48 percent said air and water pollution. As for proposed global warming remedies, Clinton's complex system of trading pollution permits only left people confused. Most simply favored higher energy efficiency standards on automobiles, appliances and so on. They were adamantly against new taxes on gasoline or other fossil fuels.
In other health and environmental news, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week claimed that large doses of Vitamin C appeared to offset the negative arterial effects of fatty foods, raising hopes that we could all eat Big Macs and trick our bodies into thinking it was bran flakes. A few days later, a team of specialists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center in New York announced that Vitamin C--"a powerful antioxidant"--could offer a new approach to treating Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders. Gee, all that and it cures colds too.
Then we read a little item just out in the American Journal of Epidemiology (Nov. 20) and our hopes are dashed. It seems that a study of tumor etiology found that consumption of fruits rich in Vitamin C was associated with a statistically significant 101 percent increase in brain tumors. Go figure. Maybe we should just enjoy whatever we're eating, and resign ourselves to the idea that we're probably not going to beat the Grim Reaper. That's a radical idea, of course.
In Augusta, Maine, environmentalists obsessed with the sex lives of striped bass, sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and herring were delighted when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered the demolition of the 160-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River. Trout Unlimited activists claim that for the last century and a half the dam has been hampering the fishies ability to get cozy. What is more, they say other dams are also guilty of the "cold shower" effect and that this one is only the FIRST to go down.
The snag now is who will pay the $6.4 million in demolition costs. The federal government wants to stick it to Edwards Manufacturing Company, which operates the dam and provides electric power to the local utility. Edwards is appealing the ruling, hoping to either save the dam or receive compensation for demolition costs and loss of income from its only dam. We suggest a compromise. Trout Unlimited has a considerable stash. Let them pay.
The U.S. Forest Service announced a $15 million loss in timber sales last year--the first loss since 1989--a result it said was due to a weak timber market and "greener" policies that favor conservation over profits. Critics noted that private landowners continue to profit from timber sales and called on the government to streamline forestry regulations. A significant cost factor, they contend, is that environmental reviews and legal wrangling can delay timber harvesting on federal lands for months or even years. Environmental groups--who pushed for those regulations--were quick to propose a solution. Now that timber sales are no longer profitable, they said, the government should ban commercial logging on federal lands altogether.
Finally, three California health department scientists announced last week a review of 61 sperm density studies undertaken between 1938 and 1990. They found that the sperm counts of healthy American men had decreased 1.5 percent per year over that period and in healthy European men had dropped by 3.1 percent per year. (Per year? Is there any left?!) The account in the Washington Post noted that previous studies [since discredited] had linked low sperm counts to PCBs, DDT, and dioxin. One female iconoclast of our acquaintance suggested it was linked to a decades-long exposure to radical feminism. We are shocked, however, at such an inflammatory and highly unscientific supposition.
Fred Singer is attending three days of the Climate Treaty conference this week before going on to San Francisco to present a paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. We're looking forward to his eyewitness account.