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The most momentous event in the politics of climate change since <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />America's decision to shelve the Kyoto treaty occurred recently at the United Nations' World Climate Change Conference in Moscow. Russian officials stated that Kyoto makes no economic sense, and Russian scientists put the lie to the claim that the science of climate change is settled. As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin administered the last rites to the dying Kyoto process. This is a major development, though largely unheralded in the Western press. Instead, the Western reaction has been one of denial.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Russia will not ratify Kyoto for two reasons. First, President Putin has plans to double his country's GDP by 2010, and is on track to achieve this. Kyoto, however, is based on the idea that emissions of greenhouse gases are harming the Earth. As countries get richer, they emit more greenhouse gases, because emissions are tied directly to industrial production and energy use. So, if Putin is to achieve his targets, Russia will need to emit more greenhouse gases than Kyoto allows. The Kyoto negotiators realized this, and so built in a scheme whereby Western countries would pay Russia to keep its economy suppressed. President Putin, unsurprisingly, does not consider this an attractive option.
The second reason is more important for the climate change debate as a whole. While it might pay for Russia to sign up if the harmful effects of greenhouse gases would outweigh Russia's economic recovery, Russian scientists are skeptical this will happen. They see huge flaws in the scientific case underlying Western worries about climate change. We know that the surface of the Earth is warming, but as we learn more about climate, it becomes apparent that other factors besides greenhouse gases play a greater role than previously thought.
Recent studies, for example, suggest that much of the recent warming trend may be due to the effects of soot released into the atmosphere by people whose prime source of heat and light is fire, not electricity. Other research suggests that the sun and other cosmic influences drive our climate much more than we previously thought. And there remains the knotty problem that the atmosphere, according to independent readings from satellites and weather balloons, is not warming in the way that greenhouse theory suggests it should.
The Western scientific "consensus" that greenhouse gases are the prime culprit has long brushed these and other scientific questions aside -- and branded dissenters as beyond the fringe. However, accomplished Russian scientists don't need to buy into "scientific correctness" to advance their careers. They have looked at the evidence with the skepticism demanded of careful scientists, and have not been convinced that the case is proven. On the conference's final day, the conference chairman acknowledged that scientists who questioned the "consensus" made about nine out of 10 contributions from the floor. This is why President Putin's advisors described the Kyoto Protocol as "scientifically flawed," language far stronger than that used by President Bush.
The reaction of Westerners who have bought into the alarmist idea that man is damaging the climate system has been telling. They have simply ignored the Russians' scientific doubts. One British observer even claimed that those nine out of 10 scientists "embarrassed" themselves. This attitude is foolish and damaging to the conduct of scientific debate. Science progresses by searching for the best possible answers to the questions facing us. It does not stop at one answer, however convenient, and then stifle all further debate -- or else it ceases to be science and becomes a pseudo-religion, which is why the description of greenhouse theory as a sacred cow is accurate.
The other reaction has been to dismiss President Putin's statement as simply a negotiating ploy, an attempt to extract more concessions from the West. This is extremely condescending toward Russia, since it implies that a proud nation would want to survive on Western handouts. Russia has every incentive to make her own fortune, and it is an insult to suggest that she can be bought off.
With the Kyoto process effectively dead, we in the West should not be wasting time trying to find ways to bring it back to life. Instead, we should revisit our decisions and question our assumptions the way the Russians have. We should not ignore their concerns because they don't play to our existing prejudices. The Russians have done us a great favour: The debate on climate change has begun anew, and we must make sure not to repeat the mistakes of the past.