He came. He saw. He said--not very much, actually. Vice President Albert Gore's eagerly anticipated address at the Climate Treaty conference in Kyoto, Japan, was something of a disappointment to his fans. Speaking before 2,100 delegates, Gore first promised greater "flexibility," which shook up industry groups by hinting that the United States government would consider committing Americans to greater greenhouse gas cutbacks than a rollback to 1990 levels by 2012 (an estimated emissions cut of 30 percent). But then he also said the United States was not going to "promise what we cannot do," which shook up activists by implying they could all go home.
Outside the conference hall, the scene was a replay of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit," what the Wall Street Journal called at the time a "bazaar of the bizarre." Green activists donned masks of various world "leaders" and played basketball with the Earth. They built a "carbonosaurus" out of junk. They set up video screens and replayed films of environmental catastrophes. They held press conferences to give out "worst polluter" awards. On the opening day of the conference, Greenpeace set up penguin ice sculptures in front of the conference hall, intending to make a visual statement as the little birds gradually melted into puddles. But in this sketch nature decided not to cooperate. The day they set them out, a cold front swept through Kyoto surprising everyone with snow. When SEPP President Fred Singer left Kyoto on Friday, he said the birds were still standing.
An agreement and a photo-op for international bureaucrats is still in the works, but the most important decision has already been handed down. In a move intended to demonstrate the importance of the global warming issue, organizers announced that the next Global Climate Treaty conference will take place just a year hence: November 1998 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Cleveland was already booked apparently.) Like those subjected to the sound of dripping water, perhaps the idea is that the public will eventually agree to anything just to make it stop.
Here in the United States, media coverage of the Climate Treaty talks was a wildly mixed bag, and oddly enough more columnists and editorial writers were doing their homework than reporters. Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe, concluded a column exploding global warming myths by characterizing the purpose of the Kyoto conference as fearmongering, Gore's presidential campaign, Chicken Littles shouting that the sky is falling, and antibusiness radicalism ("Global Warming, Globaloney" Dec. 2). Londoner Herb Geer savagely satirized the coffee house activists of his college days in the Washington Times ("How we solved global warming," Dec. 8). Charles Krauthammer writing in the Washington Post ("Global Warming Fundamentalists," Dec. 5) noted more ominously that "as climate change predictions become more malleable and contingent, climate change activists become more inflexible and intolerant."
Both the Washington Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail ran lengthy and sensible features, but most of the major media reflected a lack of research, with reporters repeatedly falling back on the line "2500 scientists agree" and television recycling weather footage as examples of things to come. Only on television discussion programs did the opposing view get an occasional airing. Prof. Patrick Michaels, again showing he's no slouch in a debate, reduced EPA chief Carol Browner to sputtering incoherency on Crossfire.
Abroad, reporting was just as split. In Finland, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat attacked global warming skeptics, and Fred Singer in particular, claiming that the climate models work surprisingly well and that these scientists exert undue influence on the United States government (!). A Danish television station attacked the signers of the Leipzig Declaration. And in Australia, public television ran an excellent two-part series: "Greenhouse Effect or Hothouse Hype?" which drew largely on Australian scientists and found little support for the scare.
But it was the Austrian newsweekly Profil, interviewing Austrian climate scientists, that showed why the public isn't better informed. Here are a few quotes:
Dr. Michael Kuhn, head of the Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics at the University of Innsbruck: "Many colleagues don't want to comment on this issue for fear of being misunderstood." Forecasts of climate catastrophe were absurd, he said: "Do you ask your physician when you're going to get influenza in the next year? It is simply impossible, with today's state of knowledge, to predict what will happen in 100 years."
A Viennese meteorologist (unnamed): "When we read the news reports, we just stand with our fists clenched in our pockets. Nobody wants to be labeled by greenhouse promoters as a skeptic or an agent of the oil lobby."
Dr. Ingeborg Auer of the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics: "The publicity [that started this] in 1990 was unbelievable. It could not be supported by scientific research.... Nobody can say today with any authority if droughts or floods follow from global warming. It simply cannot be done."
Climate scientists Reinhard Bohm of the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics: "The data, so far, can be explained by natural climate variations...It would be better to tell people the truth instead of keeping them upset with false arguments. This whole affair stems from the European mentality: everything that changes is dangerous."
Some groups are playing on that fear. EnviroNews Service reported that insurance executives, speaking at a Kyoto conference workshop organized by the UNEP Insurers Initiative, called on world governments to require "global health warnings" on all oil and gasoline advertising.
The British government's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction also put in its two-cents, announcing that 1997 was looking like the hottest year on record, according to surface-based measurements. We should point out that when they made that announcement they were six weeks short of data. Hadley scientists pulled this same stunt a couple of years ago, only to have December temperatures drop like a rock and the year--according to satellite measurements--turn out to be rather average. This time they're counting on the El Niņo to boost December temperatures, but satellite measurements still don't support their case for a record. Prof. Pat Michaels and Chip Knappenberger of the University of Virginia report that 1997 is actually shaping up as the 6th coldest since satellite readings began in 1979.
The circus going on in Kyoto right now--the activist antics, the political posturing--brings to mind something Ruth Wisse says in the December issue of Commentary about "the corrosive force of well-intentioned people with poor ideas who wield enormous public influence without bearing a commensurate responsibility for the consequences of their words."
Speaking of which, Robert Watson, new chairman of a more activist UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was puzzling last week over the possibility that the U.S. Senate might put an end to their little party by refusing to ratify a Kyoto accord. According to the Wall Street Journal, Watson noted wistfully that "In Germany, when the legislature and the government determines there's a problem, the public and industry will follow that decision. The opposite seems true in the U.S. Unless you have industry and the public behind you, you find the government, especially the Congress, is unwilling to lead."
In any case, Fred Singer is in San Francisco this week presenting his research on sea level rise at the Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. He says he's curious to see what happens this week in Kyoto, but glad to be viewing it from a distance.