Solid Waste & Recycling


Kyoto: A Humanistic Argument Against the Protocol

Can one be "pro environment" and still be against the Kyoto climate change accord? To read Stephen Harper, for example, one cannot. Oh, he's against Kyoto alright, but his stance involves replacing Kyoto with new clean air regulations. In other wo...

Can one be “pro environment” and still be against the Kyoto climate change accord? To read Stephen Harper, for example, one cannot. Oh, he’s against Kyoto alright, but his stance involves replacing Kyoto with new clean air regulations. In other words, Harper and his handlers accept the premise that opposing Kyoto requires proposing new, more and “better” regulations to mitigate the damage of being perceived as anti-environmental.

One can hardly blame him. Anyone with school-age children knows poignantly how the environment has superceded all humanistic questions and concerns to become the motherhood issue of our time. Even a half-hearted attempt to inject a shade of subtlety into a discussion about the environment can put you quickly into the rogue’s docket with the likes of Hooker Chemical, the captain of the Exxon Valdez and elephant poachers. It is this emotion that allows David Suzuki to pronounce imperiously that the case is closed on Kyoto, and get away with it. Even the solid waste and recycling industry now assesses landfill and other projects in terms of their Kyoto-compliance benefits.

In the adult world, however, the case is not closed on the science behind Kyoto, and one can also favor environmental protection and oppose the Kyoto accord. It behooves us to discuss the complexities of managing limited financial resources to preserve and manage the environment and also face up to the daunting responsibility of educating, feeding and employing over six billion people (and growing).

The humanistic argument that Kyoto is flawed and essentially bad for the environment doesn’t require clever, twisted logic. One starts by first debunking the myth that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made emissions of CO2 are causing the earth to warm. This is not hard to do because, other than in the minds of many journalists, there is no consensus. The theory that carbon dioxide emissions are inducing global warming has not been validated by experimental or empirical evidence. This isn’t the crank view, but the conclusion of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences “2001 Report on Global Climate Change,” which noted, “A causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established.”

At best there is an equivocal correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup from the burning of fossil fuels and a slight (0.8 degrees C) average warming of surface temperatures in the past century. But, in rigorous science, correlation does not equal cause and attempts to confirm a direct link between CO2 buildup and global warming have been dogged by a number of questions and inconsistencies. These include: inaccuracies in computer models which predict a much higher rate of warming than we are currently seeing; evidence of surface warming that began before large scale emissions of carbon dioxide; urban “heat island effects” that skews ground measurements; questions about the role of natural variations in the earth’s climate (which has been in flux for millions of years before man), satellite temperature measurements of the lower atmosphere showing no warming; and, the general complexity of both climate and the carbon cycle which eludes complete scientific understanding. (Contrary to popular belief, for instance, there is no “global average temperature.”)

Lack of a direct correlation between CO2 buildup and global warming means the entire case for carrying out the enormously costly (and assuredly ineffective) Kyoto agreement rests on the precautionary principle. According to the precautionary principle, the public or government should always seek to mitigate the risks of a potentially harmful activity, even when those risks are below the threshold to accurately measure, predict or substantiate.

Environmentalists frequently rally around the precautionary principle, but it is very seldom taken as the basis of actual environmental law or directives, especially one as likely to require dramatic societal changes as Kyoto. Instead, most modern environmental regulations are based on the scientific demonstration of a direct causal link between some agent or action and a harmful, unintended side effect.

One of the best known examples of direct environmental cause-and effect is the finding that chemicals used in aerosol spray cans were causing the depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer. Using chemical kinetic theory, University of California chemists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland predicted these chlorine-containing compounds in the upper atmosphere would initiate a chain reaction leading to significant destruction of ozone. In 1976 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences confirmed the Molina-Sherwood finding, leading to the Montreal Protocol and complete phase out of CFC production.

There are many other examples of non-precautionary, empirically-based environmental regulations, including bans on phosphate detergent, DDT and the passing of clean air regulations which have significantly reduced nitrous and sulfurous oxides, the precursors of acid rain. By contrast, the precautionary Kyoto protocol, which aims to reduce industrial carbon emissions 5 per cent below 1990 levels, offers no guarantees of even nominally mitigating global warming. According to the world’s most advanced climate model, a fully implemented Kyoto Protocol will avoid 14/100ths of a degree Celsius of warming by 2100, an amount too small to detect. Meanwhile the cost to implement it continues to rise. World carbon emissions are expected to exceed 1990 levels by 40 per cent in 2010 and 72 per cent in 2020.

The cost to impede and then reverse this trend in emissions is variously estimated to be 0.1 to 1.5 per cent of the GDP of developing nations, or in the range of a few billion to a few trillion dollars — no one knows exactly. Others have pointed out how this enormous sum of money could be better spent on more pressing problems — clean water, health care, education. Still others have noted that the economic drag created by the costs of Kyoto will, in poorer nations, undermine the surest guarantee of environmental protection-generation of wealth.

Yet perhaps the strongest argument against Kyoto is a legal/humanistic one. Invoking the precautionary principle to support environmental laws with dubious benefit ultimately opens the door for the use of the precautionary principal, and political rather than scientific criteria, to undermine reasonable, valid environmental protection policies.

An example? One could, in theory, create economic modeling studies predicting that millions of people will die from diseases related to impoverishment if the rain forest is protected.

One good unproven, apocalyptic conjure deserves another.

Michael LeGault is editor of Canadian Plastics magazine. Contact Michael at

[Editor’s Note:

Any paleoclimatologist will tell you that the 20th century is a natural recovery from the Little Ice Age — an unusually cool period in the northern hemisphere that lasted several hundred years and was responsible for, among other things, frozen Thames and Hudson rivers in England and New York. It appears that some slight recent warming is likely from a hotter sun (increased energy output has been detected).

One statistic that’s often abused is an increase in insurance claims from severe weather. Global warming theory proponents ignore the fact that this is the result not of increased hurricane or other storm activity, but from the fact that in the era of air-conditioning, more and more people have moved in recent decades to the so-called Sun Belt of the United States, including storm-prone Florida where valuable seaside dwellings are preferred.

One of the saddest consequences of the dubious global warming debate is that it has sidelined a serious discussion of another danger posed by fossil fuel burning, and that is straight chemistry. U.S. scientists connected with the laboratory at Los Al

amos are examining the possible effects of all that CO2 being absorbed by the atmosphere and especially the oceans (which are thought to take in about half). No one knows the effect all that carbon will have on ocean chemistry and microscopic marine life (and consequently the food chain), but the effects could be dire.

It would be better to focus our attention on that scientific issue, which can be measured and studied objectively, and see if there’s cause for real concern, than talk about the carbon cycle only in “warming” terms. — ed.}

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