The Truth About Climate Change Politics

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Like a bad penny that keeps showing up, former Vice President Al Gore chose Earth Day and the issue of global warming to make his first serious public attack on the Bush Administration since Campaign 2000.

Among the numerous misleading claims made by "Ozone" Al in an Op-ed in The New York Times, was that the Bush administration orchestrated the ouster of Clinton nominated American scientist, Robert Watson, as chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Though the Bush administration had decided not to support Watson for a second term as the IPCC head, they were hardly alone. Indeed, 76 nations, mostly developing countries in Asia and Latin America, voted to oust Watson as the IPCC head, while only 49 countries voted to continue his tenure. Watson, and Watson alone, is responsible for his current state of unemployment.

Like Gore, most European leaders liked Watson because he was, as The New York Times described him, an "outspoken advocate of the idea that human actions - mainly burning coal and oil - are contributing to global warming."

Watson ignored mounting evidence contrary to his belief that humans are causing catastrophic warming. The most egregious example was in the IPCC's most recent report on the state of the climate. Every five years the IPCC publishes a massive three-volume report on climate change, known as the UN's Assessment Report. Each report begins with a "Summary for Policy Makers," which attempts to condense the full 700-page report into a 20-page summary. The Assessment Report is written by scientists and is exhaustively peer reviewed; the summary is not. Watson was the lead author of the summary.

The summary stated that the IPCC had concluded that mankind's contribution to the problem of global warming is greater than previously believed." However, the full assessment report actually contained several caveats and uncertainties about the impact of human activities on climate change.

The summary suggested that the Earth is going to undergo a higher range of warming and a higher sea-level rise by 2100 (worst case scenario of 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit and 88 cm) than previously thought, and that confidence in the ability of models to project future climate has increased. Yet according to an NCPA report by Dr. Kenneth Green, chief scientist at the Reason Public Policy Institute - an expert reviewer for the Assessment Report - the assertions in the summary are based on "made-up scenarios filtered through grossly simplified climate models" after the full report had already been through expert review.

Green notes, the "worst case scenario," which garnered all the press, includes several questionable assumptions. Among them are that there will be no mid-course programs to decrease greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2100; that global deforestation will not abate; developing countries will attain levels of development and energy use comparable to developing countries; and that most future energy production will come from coal and oil, which ignores the increasing reliance on cleaner-burning natural gas and improving technologies such as fuel cells and offshore wind power.

Further, Watson showed intellectual dishonesty by presenting increases in temperature and sea levels out of context. For example, the summary failed to point out that the majority of observed warming since 1860 happened between 1910 and 1945 and was not attributable to human activities - only an undefined portion of warming since 1945 is attributable to human energy use. It also ignored evidence that more severe temperature shifts occurred before humans existed, which suggests that recent changes could be entirely of nonhuman origin.

As for increases in the sea level, the report fails to mention that it has been rising for nearly 20,000 years, a rise totaling about 120 meters since the last Ice Age. Yet the rate of rise fluctuates and does no always track observed warming, and importantly, the pace has not increased during the 20th Century.

Ultimately, nations such as the U.S. wanted a chairman who would examine all the science and then report what, if any, consensus developed. Based on the evidence, they concluded Watson was not such a man.

If the Bush administration had really connived to oust Watson because of his politics it is hardly likely that they would have replaced him with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri. Like Watson, and unlike the Bush administration, Pachauri is a supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, having called on his native India to ratify it as recently as March of this year. But in his case, the potential for balance was more encouraging than the known advocacy of Watson.