The Montreal Talks: A Lot of Hot Air

The official photo of Dr. Harlan L. Watson, senior climate negotiator for the U.S. delegation to the just-concluded 10-day UN global warming talks in Montréal, shows him touching his finger to his lips, as if in deep thought.

Dr. Harlan L. Watson

But based on his performance during the fruitless negotiations (which came to a virtual standstill as he blocked any international accord), thoughtfulness is not in his repertory. He started out well enough on December 2. “These engagements provide many opportunities for countries to join together to discuss climate policy, often focusing on practical steps to address climate change such as accelerating the development and deployment of advanced energy technologies,” he said. But that was just window dressing. In actuality, Watson didn’t want to “discuss” anything, as he quickly made U.S. policy clear: “The U.S. position remains consistent: we see no change in current conditions that would result in a negotiated agreement consistent with the U.S. approach.” In other words, it was our way—the voluntary or “market based” approach—or no way. Watson has no real background in climate science (he has a Ph.D. in physics from Iowa State and a long history as an aide to conservative Republican Congressman and current House Speaker Dennis Hastert before being appointed as climate negotiator—at the urging of ExxonMobil).

Watson’s value to the Bush administration would presumably be the same as John Bolton’s over at the United Nations: He just says no, and tries to scuttle the very talks he’s supposed to be “negotiating.” The goal in Montréal was to work on post-Kyoto Treaty emission-reduction targets, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair thought he had “all major economies” on board. But Watson was having none of it. He told reporters: “We would certainly not agree to the U.S. being part of legally binding targets and timetable agreement post 2012.” The New York Times called this “shameless foot dragging,” for which the Bush administration “deserves only censure.”

Despite all this, Dr. No still claimed that the U.S. was a leading player in saving the planet. “The actions we have taken are next to none in the world,” he said, claiming that we spend $5 billion a year on a voluntary approach, and on “research and technology.” Without the U.S., which emits a quarter of all global warming gas (more than any other country), there’s no effective plan, though major players such as Japan, Russia and the European Union (EU) seem determined to go without us.

Meanwhile, the EU endorsed a plan last June to bring greenhouse gas emissions down 15 to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. It will be a tough goal to achieve, since many EU countries (11 of 15, according to one count) are emitting global warming gas well above their Kyoto targets. In fact, Spain, Ireland and Greece join five other nations with the biggest emissions increases. Far from dipping below 1990 levels, Spain’s emissions jumped 42 percent between 1990 and 2003. Kyoto signatory and cheerleader Canada was up 24 percent in the period.

According to H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, the only substantive progress made in Montréal was publication of a rule book for emissions trading. “But about the only thing attendees really accomplished at the Montréal summit was to add tons of greenhouse gases into the air by traveling there,” Burnett said.

Montréal didn’t bring the world any closer to attaining its goals, and environmentalists were grievously disappointed. Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club’s Canadian branch says Washington “continually tried to derail” the Kyoto process. Environmental writer Bill McKibben called the talks “too painful to watch,” a tragedy that has descended into farce.

But Washington bullying was only part of the problem. Adam Ma’anit, a research associate with Carbon Trade Watch, accused the conference as having become a “greenhouse gravy train” designed to enrich participating carbon traders from major corporations. “Even before the ink was dry on the Kyoto Protocol,” Ma’anit said, the negotiations had become “mired in details about the nature of the burgeoning carbon markets and the price of CO2, rather than focused on real reductions of emissions.“Daphne Wysham of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network saw a wall-to-wall phalanx of men in ties. “You wouldn’t know you were at an environmental summit after you passed through the security checks at the entrance to Palais de Congres,” she observed. “Everywhere one turns, there [were] people in suits, striding purposefully toward another side event or delegates’ meeting.”

Dartmouth College Professor Michael Dorsey points out that the text hammered out in Canada doesn’t even mention the words “petroleum” or “oil,” despite the fact that the combined CO2 emissions from the output of ExxonMobil and BP-Amoco are more than Africa’s and Central America’s combined. “Royal Dutch Shell emits more CO2 than some of the largest countries in the world, including Canada, Brazil and Mexico,” he said. Canadian climate change policy analyst Graham Erion claimed that the talks “were held hostage by the petroleum sector. Governments spend much more supporting oil production instead of fighting climate change.”

It was with all this in mind that I considered a press release from the George C. Marshall Institute inviting me to a press event December 14 with Dr. Patrick Michaels, a leading climate skeptic, University of Virginia professor and author of Meltdown and Satanic Gases. He is, according to, “possibly the most prolific and widely quoted climate change skeptic scientist.”

Unlike Watson, however, Dr. Michaels is a Ph.D. climatologist. In an e-mail exchange with me, he pointed out that he is a big believer in green cars and an early owner of a Honda Insight. He opined, “My global warming argument is simply that Kyoto does nothing measurable but takes away capital that can be used to invest in future technologies (remembering that the efficient companies will be those that tend to prosper). I believe this is now Tony Blair’s position, and, in its latest iteration (two days ago), Bill Clinton’s.”

It’s true that politicians are starting to shift from Kyoto-style emission targets, since countries are noticeably remiss at meeting them. But it’s not clear how simply encouraging “clean technologies” is going to get us there, either. The hydrogen-powered car as trumpeted by President Bush is a bright spot on the horizon, but it’s not likely to have an impact in the critical decade ahead. Hybrids are great, but our collective emission of global warming gas is still on a steady upward trajectory.

Dr. Michaels is also the state climatologist in Virginia. If you’re looking for reassurance about the coming climate juggernaut, the Virginia State Climatology Office’s advisories might be a good place to start. In a website posting dated July 17, we are informed that hurricanes are not only occurring less frequently, but they’re lessening in intensity, too. “That’s right,” it said, “apparently hurricanes are getting weaker.” Attention in New Orleans!

And when it comes to climate change intensifying hurricane intensity, the Virginia State Climatology Office doesn’t go there. “After all,” we’re informed in an unsigned posting, “some scientists (not this one) think global warming increases the frequency or intensity of El Niño, the big Pacific Ocean weathermaker. It is well known that El Niño activity and hurricane intensity are highly negatively correlated.”

Dr. Michaels has said that we’re all worrying too much about the climate. He wrote, “The core issue over the next 10 years will not be ‘How much will the climate warm?’ but, rather, ‘Why did it warm so little?’ My research also leads me to believe that the next decade will see the emergence of a paradigm of ‘robust earth,’ as opposed to the fashionable ‘fragility’ concept. It is entirely possible that human influence on the atmosphere is not necessarily deleterious and that it is simply another component of the dynamic planet. Tomorrow’s scientific and science-policy leaders will have to recognize this verity in our attempts to maintain a productive and diverse planet.”