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The deal's off

Hopes grow cold for a landmark climate treaty at Copenhagen

The deal's off

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

It was early November, the last day of a United Nations conference in Barcelona. Delegates from 175 countries had gathered to wrangle over carbon dioxide emissions, and Yvo de Boer, a middle-aged man in glasses and a yellow tie, sat down in front of a microphone to summarize the week-long talks. As UN climate secretary, de Boer was saddled with the task of coaching world leaders into a climate change treaty by December: "Governments can deliver a strong deal in Copenhagen," he said in a firm, sharp voice. "Nothing has changed my confidence in that."

De Boer might have been the only confident person in the building. After five days of private meetings that reached little agreement and included a walkout by African delegates, both envoys and environmentalists were skeptical any treaty would be hammered out at a Dec. 7-18 climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. Developments at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 15 cemented such skepticism: President Obama and other world leaders decided they would not seek a legally binding deal at Copenhagen.

For two years the UN has been arranging meetings to piece together a treaty curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims greenhouse gases have increased the global average temperature by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1905. To slow the alleged threat of melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and widespread flooding and droughts, the panel says major world powers should cut CO2 emissions 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020. (Some independent studies have disputed the IPCC's assessment.) Further, the UN expects the United States and other affluent nations to help developing nations adopt low-carbon practices and adapt to regional climate problems-at an estimated cost of $150 billion per year by 2020.

That's a tough sell during a widespread recession. The climate change talks have highlighted a rift between rich and poor countries that has complicated such negotiations ever since the Kyoto Protocol was signed by the Clinton administration in 1998. Kyoto, expiring in 2012, was never ratified by the U.S. Senate since it didn't require emerging nations like China-now the world's biggest polluter-to rein in their own emissions.

Neither would a new treaty, so far. Rather than make concessions at the Barcelona talks, developing nations made it clear they weren't willing to tackle global warming until financial offers were on the table. In turn, envoys from wealthier nations declined to make aid commitments until the developing nations described how they'd cut emissions, resulting in what one delegate called a "chicken-and-egg situation."

At one point, African delegates boycotted the talks for a day. Lumumba Di-Aping, a Sudanese envoy who acted as spokesperson for the developing countries, demanded wealthier nations commit to cutting 40 percent of their emissions by 2020. Anything less, he said, would "condemn developing countries to a total destruction of their livelihoods, their economies. Their land, their forests will all be destroyed."

"I see this as another effort at a shakedown by Third World developing nations of Western developed nations," said E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance, a Judeo-Christian environmental policy group. (WORLD founder Joel Belz is on its board of advisors.) Beisner said the UN negotiations aim at wealth redistribution by appealing to a "widespread feeling of guilt" among wealthier states-guilt for allegedly contributing to global warming.

The UN treaty would allow other nations to hold the United States responsible for its level of emissions. Since the only way to cut CO2 is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels or adopt expensive alternative energy, it would come at a huge economic cost and even drive U.S. industries to less affluent nations, where they could emit freely. In spite of President Obama's support for climate change measures, his administration needs an indication that the Senate would support such an action during a recession and a healthcare debate before it can make international commitments.

The Senate is instead giving indications that it would not. The same day African delegates walked out of the Barcelona meetings, seven Senate Republicans had a boycott of their own in Washington. It was over the Kerry-Boxer "cap-and-trade" bill, which the Environment and Public Works Committee-chaired by bill co-author Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.-was preparing to revise and vote on. Before the markup session began, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's ranking Republican and an outspoken global-warming skeptic, told Boxer his party wouldn't be attending unless she agreed to allow a detailed EPA analysis of the bill's economic impact.

What Boxer agreed to do was pass her bill through committee on 11 Democratic votes, without a single Republican present. (One Democrat voted nay.) It was the first time she'd made such a move-what Inhofe called a "nuclear option" that was "theater in preparation for Copenhagen."

Boxer's tactic might have won admiration from far-left environmentalists, but it was criticized by moderate Republicans in the Senate, whose votes are pivotal if a cap-and-trade bill reaches the floor.

The Kerry-Boxer bill calls for a 20 percent reduction in emissions by 2020. Under the cap-and-trade approach, companies would have to buy emissions permits-each allowing the release of one metric ton of CO2-and trade them with other companies as needed. A similar bill narrowly passed the House of Representatives in June and is awaiting Senate action.

But even Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia hesitated: "The balance on this is among people like myself who come from coal state [sic] and manufacturing states who can't just sort of meet the Copenhagen deadline. We've got to be satisfied it's a good bill and I'm not at this point."

Rockefeller has reason to be wary. A recent Pew survey showed the number of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming has dropped 20 percentage points since 2007. Americans are more concerned about healthcare legislation and the stability of the economy than the weather, and a cap-and-trade bill doesn't come off as a great way to jump-start jobs.

In its current form, the House version of cap-and-trade could cause 2.5 million job losses and a national GDP loss of $9.4 trillion by the year 2035, according to the Heritage Foundation. The policy group estimates a typical family of four would pay $829 more on average for one year's utility bills.

With Democrats divided on the Kerry-Boxer bill, insiders say it may be pushed to the side for a fresh proposal. Although that means it's unlikely a cap-and-trade bill will reach the Senate floor until 2010, UN leaders still hope to capitalize on Copenhagen's momentum and strike a political (as opposed to legal) deal in December-with treaty language to be worked out next year.

The week after the Barcelona talks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came to the United States and met with Senate leaders, including John Kerry, D-Mass. The same day, Kerry announced he would be working with other senators to put together "a sort of framework, or outline" of the Senate's position that negotiators could take to Copenhagen in December.

Chris Horner, a best-selling author and environmental policy attorney, told me that Kerry's announcement was "pomposity," a signal of support without substance. With the cap-and-trade bill struggling, it's clear the Senate doesn't have the two-thirds vote necessary to ratify the UN's extreme proposals.

Sticking points

The man who, in 2003, debunked a famous "hockey stick" graph showing a sharp rise in 20th-century global temperatures is still looking for fishy climate data. Steve McIntyre, a retired Canadian who analyzes obscure climate data at ClimateAudit.org, has recently uncovered another faulty climate-history study. In the process he's drawn attention to a lack of data disclosure in the scientific community.

Since weather, temperature, soil quality, and other factors are believed to influence the size of tree rings, climate scientists take core samples from trees and try to determine the past temperature of a region by measuring the rings. A study of larch trees from the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia was published in 2000 by Keith Briffa, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. Briffa's analysis showed the 20th century to be unusually warm compared with the previous two millennia-forming the familiar hockey stick shape on a timeline. In subsequent years the Yamal analysis was used to support at least eight studies, including one Briffa published in Science in 2006.

To check it out for himself, McIntyre asked Science to disclose the original tree core information, which had never been published. Science demurred, in spite of the data disclosure rule it maintains for its authors. But another journal Briffa had published in, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, agreed to enforce its own disclosure policy. Several months later the Yamal data appeared online.

What McIntyre found surprised him: The 1990s, the most significant portion of the graph in terms of warming, were represented by only 12 tree core samples, very few by science standards. When McIntyre supplemented those cores with others also collected from Yamal, the curve of the hockey stick largely flattened out.

In response, Briffa denied he chose the tree cores in order to get a preconceived temperature, but didn't deny the 12 tree cores might have given an inaccurate result. Instead, he and his colleagues posted online a new analysis of the Yamal Peninsula, making use of a wider array of data. Their resulting graph still showed 20th-century warming, but slightly less than what the original Yamal study suggested.

Whatever the verdict on Yamal, McIntyre's investigations demonstrate the value of making climate data freely available at the time of initial publishing. "There should be a demand for due diligence," says McIntyre, who's awaiting unfulfilled data requests for eight scientists. "I've had some luck in getting data . . . sometimes it takes four years."

Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and leads WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate or a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @DanJamDevine.