This week, 5,400 delegates from 189 countries have gathered in Buenos Aires for what's called COP 10, the 10th annual conference of the parties to the United Nations' agreement to combat climate change.
That agreement spawned the Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed nations to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels like petroleum and coal) 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
I have been attending these extravaganzas for five years now, and they are an exercise, in the grandly self-important style of the world body, in wheel-spinning and America-bashing. But something is changing. While a superficial glance indicates the extremists are winning, they are, in fact, on the run. They've failed--largely because opponents like MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen, who has called warming theory a "religious belief" rather than sound science, haven't been intimidated. Now, a consensus is building to tackle global warming the right way.
Still, on the surface, the Greens seemed to achieve a victory in October when Russia, in return for Europe's supporting its bid for WTO membership, ratified Kyoto. The treaty goes into force in February even though President Bush rejected it as "fatally flawed" in 2001.
Despite Russia, smart environmentalists aren't rejoicing. Anyone with even minimal knowledge of energy and the science of global warming knows Kyoto is a sham. Europe isn't meeting its targets, and, anyway, the rise in CO2 emissions is steepest, not in the United States and Germany, but in China and India, with booming coal-based economies. And China and India, like more than 100 other developing nations, are exempt from Kyoto's strictures.
Economic studies show that, to achieve even minuscule temperature reductions, economic growth in the United States would have to fall to stagnation levels. Imagine the impact on the rest of the world of such a decline.
Meanwhile, new research is casting doubt on the assumptions behind the science of warming--especially severe flaws in climate computer models.
Still, expect the United States, as usual, to be painted the villain in Buenos Aires despite the fact that, as Harlan Watson, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, said last week, "The U.S. effort is equal to that of any other nation to deal with climate change." We're spending more on research than anyone else, and we've signed more than 200 agreements with other nations for scientific studies and the development of clean-energy technologies. What the United States rejects is the nonsense of Kyoto.
Expect also that the environmental press will be crowing over the Russian ratification, even though Russia has no obligation at all to make emissions cuts in the next few years. (Instead, Russia will collect money from Europeans by "trading" rights to emit.) Clear-eyed enviros know they're losing. A frank new report, "The Death of Environmentalism," issued last week by two Green strategists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, admits that warming advocates have failed. They haven't "come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that a majority of Americans could get excited about."
True. But don't wait for the Greens to lead. Instead, responsible advocates are building a consensus around the right approach, which concentrates not on destroying the economies of developing countries through limits to growth, but on improving those economies through the use of more energy--the best leverage for boosting living standards. Wealth, after all, makes health. As a nation gets richer, it gets cleaner.
Poor farmers in China, India and Africa burning dung and charcoal are releasing not just CO2 but real pollutants into the air. The role of rich nations should be to transfer technologies that produce cleaner energy more efficiently.
Meanwhile, there's important research to be done. We still don't know whether the rise in temperatures is natural and cyclical (it was warmer many centuries ago when the Vikings colonized Greenland) or human-induced.
But the radicals are losing. Michael Crichton, author of science-based best sellers like Jurassic Park, has a new book, State of Fear, which casts serious doubt on global warming and extremists who espouse it.
As Crichton says, "Why are we not feeding people in this world who are hungry? Why are we not giving clean water to the almost billion people who don't have clean water? The greatest source of environmental degradation is poverty. Why aren't we cleaning up poverty?"
Those are the right questions for the multitudes in Buenos Aires.
James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.