American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

February 2007

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

Most observers of the global warming phenomenon have an awareness of its somewhat controversial nature. And the framework of a move diplomatically to contain the problem exists in the form of the 2005 Kyoto Accord, with 120 signing countries – not including the United States. The problem and any proposed solution, however, contain few uncomplicated elements, according to the authors of this perceptive analysis.Ed.

The Zen of Global Warming

It appears that every generation needs a holier-than-thou ideological mantra (or a new national symbol) with which to wrap themselves virtuously while belaboring their opponents as the political equivalent of demonically possessed.

Was Jesus Christ entirely mortal, entirely divine, or simultaneously entirely mortal and entirely divine? Is "the Union" forever one and inseparable or are the rights of states paramount? Is fascism, communism, Islamic fundamentalism, or vegetarianism the ism-wave of the future? Is pregnancy a question of "choice" or "life"? Is alcohol "Demon Rum" or does a glass of red wine not just enhance but prolong life? Is smoking a cigarette in a restaurant worse than snorting cocaine in its restroom? Can one suffer a Holocaust denier?

Pick your weapon/words and come out slanging.

In this regard, the Kyoto Agreement and global warming have become among the most knife-edged shibboleths of the current culture wars

To complicate matters, global warming and its political surrogate (the Kyoto Accord) appear to have become aspects of bilateral differentiation between nations—distinguishing the moral, environmentally conscious, energy-conserving Kyoto cultists from the right wing, gun-toting yahoos and Kyoto-deniers epitomized by the United States. And Kyoto would be, if not easy, at least defensible if it were truly effective. Canada, for example, would certainly find Kyoto's provisions easier to achieve without economic pain if it had California’s climate. Luxembourg might be less enthusiastic if it were 100 times larger. The United States might have found it more attractive if it had Saudi Arabia and Canada’s combined energy resources to tap and only half its current population. Indeed, there are supportable extrapolations from the Kyoto Accord—those that would result in serious conservation, better R&D, and investment in engineering efficiencies directed at conserving nonrenewable resources for our economies.

In North America, for example, it will take the combined efforts of both Canada and the U.S. to conserve existing continental energy resources and develop alternative energies. Fighting over the intractably hard-to-prove “global warming” theories or over Kyoto generates gigantic political angst to little practical purpose. Rather than enshrining Kyoto shibboleths, governments should be seeking pragmatic problem-solving approaches. Global warming should not become another facet of culture wars.

No one wept when the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations. Somewhere in the distant future, the U.N. might in turn evolve into a more effective organization (let’s say a global equivalent of the European Union). The League/U.N. are Kyoto/post-Kyoto analogues. The general, global United States effort to advance Kyoto alternatives driven by private industry efforts deserves more than the out-of-hand dismissiveness it has generally met. Specifically, in North America, the United States and Canada together have the wealth, weight, will, and technology to form something better than Kyoto—for their own sake but from which others could benefit.

Start by Understanding Our Limits of Understanding: Global Warming Science and Global Warming Theories Are Just That.
Global warming science is just an attempt using the best currently available computational and scientific information to support or refute existing theories. Newton and Einstein each had their refuting critics, and there is strong current debate on abstractions in astrophysics such as String Theory and Dark Matter. Darwin remains a theory still regardless of the views of evolution scientists or Biblical literalists in Kansas. In discussing global warming, we are at an interface between scientific theory and governmental action. We can indeed rush down the wrong path; in that regard, let us not forget what resulted from applying eugenics theories in the 1930s. Nor does long accepted theory assure accuracy (chemists still mutter "phlogiston" to those they believe bombastically self-assured and until August 2006 Pluto was a "planet.") Precise measurement does not imply accuracy.

Nor are scientists saints; indeed, they are as bureaucratic and self-seeking as any professional group. If the funding available is for global warming, then research proposals will be cast as applicable to global warming. If any mention of global warming or global disaster gets more attention in science journals, the topic will be more mentioned. If there is strong hostility to anyone who goes against the current “dogma,” then those who have yet to receive tenure will be very cautious in commentary. Scientific training forces you to look at other possibilities, and thus honest scientists will often sound like champion diplomatic prevaricators, qualifying their third subtended clause with a fourth. But "honest science" and "politics as usual" are rare bedmates.

Inherent Uncertainties.
We don’t have a clockwork universe. The finest computer models that we rely on are still held hostage to the “predictability” in the underlying relationships. The U.S. National Weather Service uses the most powerful available supercomputers to predict “the weather”—not “climate”—just the weather—for which we have thousands of moment-to-moment measurements. They do reasonably well for a few days of forecasting, and they can track hurricanes and estimate tornado possibilities, but that is their limit. Think instead of climate calculations, which, in the case of “global warming science” require accurate predictions for centuries (although that is trivial given the scale of geological time.) Moreover, the relationships are not linear but are based on complex nonlinear relationships which can unpredictably “blow up” or “collapse” as the scientists attempt to model them.

Based on work in 1963 by Edward Lorentz of MIT, James Gleick in Does God Play Dice detailed this conundrum. Lorentz calculations yielded results that varied enormously and unpredictably with the most minute change in initial conditions. He called this the “butterfly effect” (the butterfly flapping in Tokyo creates a Florida hurricane) when he found that the results of one computer run could not be duplicated even when the same data was fed into the system—because, in his case, putting 0.506000 instead of the original 0.506127—a difference of one part in a thousand—resulted in vastly different results.

Gleick explained the implications. Climatologists using global computer models to simulate the long-term behavior of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans know their models allow for a dramatically different equilibrium. "…this alternate climate has never existed, but it could be an equally valid solution to the system of equations governing the earth. It is what some climatologists call the White Earth climate: an earth whose continents are covered by snow and whose oceans are covered by ice." Computer model designers are aware of this possibility, but avoid it as too unpredictable. To explain large changes in climate, they look for external causes—changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun, for example. Yet it takes no great imagination for a climatologist to see that "almost-intransitivity" (another Lorentz hypothesis in which a system fluctuates within certain bounds for long time, but then, for no reason whatsoever, shifts into a different behavior, still fluctuating but producing a different average) might well explain why the earth’s climate has drifted in and out of long Ice Ages at mysterious, irregular intervals. If so, no physical cause need be found for the timing. The Ice Ages may simply be a by-product of the underlying complex nonlinear relationships or “chaos.”

In sum, the underlying mathematics and modeling, the immensely complex interactions mean that, while we can try to extract support for this or other trend, in our very, very short timescales, we cannot prove any of the theories. Even attempts to “backcast” with models where we have data can do little. We could be in the midst of a major warming trend that will have orchids bloom in the Arctic. Or we could be in a small warming trend with our descendants valiantly fighting glaciation in New York City. Or everything could swing back to the 1900 average.

Some Humility Is Appropriate: The Ice Ages Came and Went and Dinosaurs Roamed the Antarctic with No Help from Us
We need to keep in mind the massive changes in earth’s climate over geologic time scales to retain a sense of perspective. Compared to changes that covered North America in ice or allowed dinosaurs to flourish in the Antarctic, the debated scale of current “global warming” is trivial. Without understanding how the entire earth-sun; earth-cosmic ray, earth-orbit changes; earth-atmospheric changes have affected earth’s climate, we have little that we can prove. Models, at best can present theories in a form that is easier to visualize; however, they are dangerous in giving us a feeling of confidence that we know a forthcoming reality. Think of the analogy of virtual war games versus on-the-ground conflicts in Lebanon or Iraq. A success in one area hardly means a success in the other. To provide a sense of juxtaposing theories, the following thumbnail sketches (of a few of the scores of options) may suggest the severe limits on current knowledge:

— Ancient Eruptions May Have Caused Global Warming. A 1997 report in Geology uncovered conclusive ashy evidence that multiple massive volcanic eruptions occurred roughly 55 million years ago in the Caribbean Basin. Those cataclysmic events released massive amounts of sea floor methane into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and possibly speeding evolution of countless new plant and animal species, including many primates and carnivores.

At the same time, close to half of all deep-sea animals went extinct, asphyxiated in the suddenly warmer and stagnant deep waters.

— New Evidence Supports Theory of Global Climate Mechanism. A 2001 article in Nature indicated climate changes at the end of the last Ice Age appear to have been operating in unison in parts of the northern and southern hemispheres. Pollen evidence suggests climate reached "near-modern conditions" between 15,400 and 14,100 years ago and was followed by cooling events between 14,100 and 13,400 years ago. The end of this cool episode occurred 11,200 years ago. Those results are similar to the timing and direction of changes recorded in Europe and Greenland. Changes in climate were not uniformly distributed across the Southern Hemisphere.

— Hyperactive Sun Comes Out in Spots. A November 2003 New Scientist study noted the sun is more active than it has been for a millennium. Some claim that temperature rises over the past century are the result of changes in the sun's output. A complementary September 2003 Science article reported that noticeable changes in the sub-polar climate and ecosystems appear to be linked to variations in the sun's intensity during the past 12,000 years.

— Dinosaurs Killed by K-T Collision. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2003 claimed that an extraterrestrial object that struck the Earth near the Yucatan in Mexico 65.51 million years ago doomed the dinosaurs and 70% of the Earth's other species, vaporizing itself and the surrounding rocks and throwing enough ash, soot, and debris into the atmosphere to effectively stop photosynthesis worldwide.

Now for a change of pace and to look at nearer to our time changes:

— Was the Medieval Warm Period Global? A 2001 Science article noted that during the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1200 AD), the Vikings colonized Greenland. The author argued that it is the last in a long series of climate fluctuations in the North Atlantic, likely global, and that the present warming should be attributed in part to such an oscillation, upon which the warming due to greenhouse gases is superimposed.

— Variability and Trends of Air Temperature and Pressure in the Maritime Arctic, 1875 – 2000. A 2003 International Arctic Research Center study observed that warming alone cannot explain the retreat of Arctic ice observed in the 1980-90s. Also crucial to this rapid ice reduction was the low-frequency shift in the atmospheric pressure pattern from anticyclonic to cyclonic. The complicated nature of Arctic temperature and pressure variations makes understanding of possible causes of the variability, and evaluation of the anthropogenic warming effect most difficult.

— Climate Change: Long-Term Geologic Data. A 2004 article in Ecological Modeling employed two 3,000-year temperature series and developed seven models (none using 20th century data). Of the seven models, six showed a warming trend over the 20th century. These results suggest that 20th century warming trends are plausibly a continuation of past climate patterns. Anywhere from a major portion to all of the warming of the 20th century could plausibly result from natural causes according to these results. Six of the models project a cooling trend over the next 200 years of 0.2–1.4 °C.

The point of these "tip of the iceberg" citations is simply to remind of the geological scales of real “climate change.” We still cannot “prove” our theories of global warming or cooling in the past because we cannot time travel to the past and measure the real changes; and, even if we measured the real changes, we would still be ignorant of the complex mechanisms then affecting earth’s climate. We are not much farther ahead today, despite our best wishes or best models.

We need to emphasize the requirement for perspective when viewing global climate change data. So far much of studies are akin to deducing all of human history by studying only the cells of the pancreas. The solar system has and will continue to change over time. Meteors and larger objects will continue to strike the planets. A wandering comet that visits Earth once every 100 million years can have an effect we can't predict. The "Gaia" enthusiasts treat Earth as a closed system in permanent (they hope) dynamic equilibrium and exclude consideration outside perturbation. Along these lines, it is not irrelevant to recall that once Earth had much more oxygen in its atmosphere (ergo dragon flies with meter-long wing spans).

The "League of Kyoto." Thus our arguments with "Kyoto" are less its idealism than its ideology and impracticality. Following World War I, the allies created the League of Nations—an idealistic exercise that failed ultimately on virtually every test of political reality. So, analogously, is it with the "League of Kyoto" whose failure to construct formulae even vaguely acceptable to the USG (hence the 95-0 Sense of the Senate rejection of Kyoto in 1997) defined its irrelevance before its inception. The creation of parameters satisfactory to small European states or failed communist economies while excluding massive, rising economies such as China and India suggested that Kyoto was an attack on the U.S. economy rather than a realistic proposal to limit "greenhouse gases." Consequently, the likelihood that the U.S. will accept Kyoto strictures is zero; no number of unprovable doom warnings on global warming is likely to convince U.S. leadership to eviscerate the economy. A recent study, for example, by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council of the minimalist McCain/Lieberman plan, and the Bingaman proposal suggested annual GDP declining by 1.9% in 2020 under McCain/Lieberman, with accumulated job losses topping 1.3 million, while the Bingaman plan would reduce GDP growth by 0.4% in 2020 and the lost job total hitting 326,000. Not political "best sellers" to be sure.

The League of Nations hoped, ineffectively, to prevent war—presumably a human activity that might be subject to human control. The League of Kyoto seeks to prevent what looks far more to be a geological and natural circumstance—and to attempt to do so with mechanisms that are unproved, improvable, and unacceptable to significant human actors. Moreover, Kyoto has created a mental block that stifles creative thinking. While quietly there is recognition by all but the theologians of the "League" that Kyoto goals are unobtainable, the you're-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric has created dichotomies that make some prefer to "burn" rather than admit that an opponent might have a "cool" thought.

There may be no "answers"; indeed, the best results from enduring global warming may be no better than human survival—a not trivial consequence to be sure, but an outcome that would be easier to navigate if the approaches were technical rather than ideological.

Addressing the Problem.
It should not be the business of diplomats to prepare souls for their God or identify evil versus good. The media has leaped on the global warming/Kyoto Treaty bandwagon. The chattering classes like it—it is every so much cleaner than other causes. Conversely, what the liberal, left wing chatterers love, their chattering analogue right wing conservatives will loath by definition. Nevertheless, recent polling suggests that a combination of hot summers, destructive hurricanes, and doomspeak media announcements has convinced about three-quarters of the U.S. population that "global warming" (however defined) exists and almost that number (72 percent—81 percent of Democrats; 72 percent of Independents; and 61 percent of Republicans) would require major industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to improve the environment without harming the economy

That range of political attitudes in a democracy will require politicians to follow the State Department's unofficial motto: "Don't just stand there. Do something." Yes, do something, but what?

One thing we do know—the earth’s population will continue to increase, barring major plagues, asteroid strikes, and cataclysmic seismic events. The Chinese term for population is renko or "people-mouth"—a very pragmatic appreciation of demographic burdens on the ecosystem. Indeed, there are some ecologists who argue that the current global population is not sustainable, let alone the projected rates of increase. And that conclusion has nothing to do with global warming. Fossil fuels will not increase. Nor will natural gas increase as a resource. By definition such nonrenewable resources will not increase, and thus we have good reason to conserve. One observer commented that burning natural gas for heat was akin to washing windows with champagne. Even renewable resources, such as water—especially potable water—can become very scarce for more and more of the population. Although there are renewable sources for methane such as rotting vegetation and flatulent sheep, these are not significant. An even worse case, a seaquake that massively releases methane clathrates from the deep seabed could overpower all the carbon dioxide emission cuts.

Instead of arguing over the "models" or whether the fact that year X is 0.001 percent higher than year Y, we should seek agreement that the precautionary principle could be a point of agreement on all sides. To make any progress, we must avoid the classic case of making the "best" the enemy of the "good enough for now." It is worthwhile noting that so long as global GDP grows, world carbon dioxide production should rise; there are some estimates, notably by the International Energy Agency in Paris, that with modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions could more than double by 2050. Consequently, there will not be a neat mathematical model with independent variables. In the end, our concern is not the abstract geological future for a warming or cooling cycle that might (or might not) last 100,000 years, it's the next generation that we need to consider; the next generation whose energy needs and hopes of a higher standard of living will depend on new sources of abundant and cheap energy. No currently available renewable resource will perform this trick. Economist Robert Samuelson has observed, "The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem. The 'inconvenient truth' is that if we don't solve the engineering problem, we're helpless."

Both bilaterally and multilaterally the United States is seeking pragmatic, engineering/technical, essentially voluntary approaches to reduce energy waste and increase fuel efficiencies. It is not a question of who has (or lacks) that mythical "global conscience." Rather it is a question of recognizing that market forces and pure pursuit of profit can create desirable results. The U.S. national vehicle fleet miles per gallon measurement has risen over a generation while household appliance efficiencies have risen. Likewise, concern for national security is a driver for seeking alternate energy sources. But legislating ecological purity is like legislating morality: "those convinced against their wills remain unconvinced still."

We should not be in the position of picking winners so far as endorsing one or another energy-associated technology. Nuclear energy or gerbils on exercise wheels charging nanotech batteries may both be relevant. However, any effort needs to be done for sound economic reasons and with a clear understanding of the costs—not driven by global climate change theology where demons, legends, and damnation all are used to threaten the ordinary folk. Perhaps it is easier for populations to worry about global warming and live the illusion that they can control it rather than deal with the fact that we will die, the Earth will die, and the sun will die—or the plagues could return—than to address the prospect that an Earth with a population of 6 billion, 8 billion, or 10 billion may make its inhabitants conclude that global warming is a tertiary concern.

Finally, if global warming activists pin all their hopes for action on a “warming trend,” they risk seeing support evaporate as soon as there are several cold winters akin to those we experienced in the 1970’s when all the talk was of a new ice age, complete with old etchings of New York harbor frozen. At that juncture, even the disarmament scientists were busy with "nuclear winter" predictions from a global nuclear war. In short, we do not need a new "Crusade" but rather a new Industrial Revolution.

David Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, has written extensively over the years for this journal and other publications. He earned an M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC