Every year, environmental alarmists claim we have taken another step on the road to ruin. This year, they claim 2003 was the third-hottest year ever, and that its heat waves, floods, and tornadoes are evidence of global warming that will bring global catastrophe.
But, despite their claims, statist environmentalists will remember 2003 as a very bad year for their credibility. Above all, we should remember 2003 as the year that saw the death of the most economically damaging idea ever to come out of the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
First, we should remember that the supposedly excessive heat of 2003 was not universal. In Japan, it was the coolest year since 1997, and many of us remember the wet, cold start to the summer in the Eastern U.S.
Moreover, the alleged increase in extreme weather events may simply be due to better reporting, as more people move to areas susceptible to such events. Indeed, the director of the World Climate Program for the World Meteorological Association, Ken Davidson, was forced to admit as much this year after his organization released an alarmist warning on the subject. That admission was part of a trend.
In fact, 2003 was notable for the number of times climate alarmists saw their doomsday predictions undermined. For instance, green activists regularly cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report as evidence of a scientific consensus that temperatures will increase by up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.
This year, however, Ian Castles, former head of Australia’s Bureau of Statistics, and David Henderson, former chief economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, pointed out that whatever science may say, these estimates are based on highly implausible projections of economic growth — such as the incredible suggestion that the per capita incomes in South Africa, Algeria, Libya, Turkey and North Korea will overtake American per capita income by 2100 by a wide margin.
These criticisms led to the Economist declaring the IPCC scenarios “dangerously incompetent.” Almost a year later, the IPCC has yet to respond to its critics with anything beyond anger and contempt.
Another part of the IPCC science is the “hockey stick” graph of historic temperatures, that shows temperatures stable for the past 1,000 years, followed by a sharp rise in the last century (the graph looks like the shaft and blade of a hockey stick). Careful scientists were suspicious of this graph, because it contradicted the historical evidence of a Medieval Warm Period, when the Vikings colonized Greenland, and a Little Ice Age, when the River Thames in London regularly froze over.
Yet the alarmist lobby jettisoned the historical evidence in favor of the hockey stick, which was based on “proxy data” such as the width of tree rings and the thickness of ice layers.
Now, however, two Canadian researchers, Steven McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, have looked at the original data underlying the hockey stick and found a catalog of errors and omissions. After correcting for those errors, their data show the 20th century was not as unusual as the hockey stick graph suggests.
The initial response by Michael Mann, lead author of the graph, contained several assertions that Mr. McIntyre and Mr. McKitrick point out are “provably false,” although a fuller response is forthcoming.
Lack of certainty like that described above has made Russian scientists and economists skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol, which is based on the IPCC science. So skeptical, in fact, that the Russians, who began 2003 saying they would ratify the protocol soon, now say they will not ratify the document in its present form.
The protocol cannot go into effect without Russian ratification. As the Russians want the protocol amended to impose restrictions on the economies of India and China — which have both said they will accept no such restrictions — it is safe to say the protocol is dead.
That is all good news, since the Kyoto treaty would devastate the economies of the industrialized world. One study shows that even Great Britain, the only major economy on course to meet its Kyoto targets, will lose 4 percent of its GDP and 1 million jobs as a result.
For Russia, struggling to pull itself out of its post-communist slump, the problem would be even greater. Small wonder that President Vladimir Putin’s chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, said recently, “Considering that the Kyoto Protocol is restricting economic growth, we must say it straight that it means dooming the country to poverty, backwardness and weakness.”
In 2003, more and more people realized alarmism over climate change is based on uncertain science and bad economics. If that trend continues in 2004, it could be a very good year indeed.
Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.