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Kyoto breakthrough

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Momentous happenings at the World Climate Conference in Moscow last week. World-shaking, one might say. After haggling about the minutiae of the Kyoto Protocol for the past six years, just how to control emissions of carbon dioxide from energy generation, it may all go down the drain in one big swoosh.

Of course, they won't let the Kyoto process itself die. Not if the United Nations bureaucracy can help it, plus the delegates from 180 nations who were so looking forward to carefree, taxpayer-supported careers attending continuous climate conferences in fancy locations. Expect to see the launch of a successor, the "son of Kyoto," -- tough-sounding but equally ineffective.

But it will be a "new ballgame." What I regard as most significant about the Moscow meeting is the choice of words by Russian politicians. They refer to Kyoto as "scientifically flawed" -- not just "fatally flawed" as George Bush called it. It is a real breakthrough because it makes skepticism about the underlying science respectable -- and indeed encourages scientists to speak out and question many of the assertions that have long been taken for granted by the press and the public.

The hype started with the first of the science assessments by the U.N.-IPCC in 1990 that claimed observations and greenhouse theory to be "broadly consistent." It morphed into the enigmatic (and ultimately meaningless) claim that the "balance of evidence" supports a human influence on climate warming and to the most recent assertion of the 2001 Third Assessment that "new evidence" now affirms this.

Careful reviewers (of which I am one) of these three IPCC reports have noticed that the "evidence" has changed from report to report, but never the conclusions. Pretty suspicious. So we can now ask out loud: What new evidence? And is it really supported by actual observations? From the very first, the IPCC report summaries (the only part read by outsiders) have carefully ignored all evidence contrary to their perennial conclusions. The litany has been constant: The climate is currently warming; the cause is human-emitted greenhouse gases; and a major warming (implied to be catastrophic) will soon be upon us.

All this will now be subjected to critical scrutiny. We had a preview of what might happen in Moscow when we exchanged information at a meeting with Russian climate scientists a few weeks earlier in St. Petersburg. But we did not anticipate the strong negative reactions to Kyoto by President Vladimir Putin and his ministers at a conference whose program seemed to be controlled by global-warming supporters and their U.N. friends.

The world community is very fortunate that rational science has emerged in Russia on the question of climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. There has never been a more anti-human proposition than that government should regulate all energy production and consumption in the name of some distant, vague fear of a climate disaster from the use of fossil fuels. Yet that is where we were headed under Al Gore until President Bush and now the Russians intervened.

The official skepticism voiced last week, both scientific and economic, should have some impacts also on other nations. The Nordic countries may well ponder whether a warming -- if indeed it were to happen -- is so bad. Canadians may ask the same: The incoming Premier Paul Martin has already questioned Kyoto and the haste with which it was adopted by Ottawa last year. The U.S. Senate may take an even more skeptical look at the upcoming McCain?Lieberman bill that would commit the U.S. to follow the energy-rationing strictures of Kyoto -- unilaterally. Even if Kyoto dies, the bill would still cause Americans to suffer economically and lose jobs.

So maybe what happened in Moscow last week will start a giant exodus from Kyoto. Then the world community can finally move on to pay attention to real problems -- such as terrorism.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project. He authored "Climate Policy -- From Rio to Kyoto" (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Calif., 2000).

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