On-Site Report from Buenos Aires Global Warming Talks: November 12, 1998

The latest rumor is that Peter Burleigh, the U.S.’s #2 man at the United Nations in New York, will sign the Kyoto Protocol at 5:00 PM Argentine time today (3:00 PM Eastern Standard Time). According to Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, this is necessary to lock in the “gains” made from Kyoto so far.

Since President Clinton isn’t signing the treaty and Vice President Gore won’t be putting in a guest appearance at the summit, having the U.S.’s #2 U.N. delegate sign the treaty is a tremendous setback for the global warming accord and for the Clinton Administration. Clearly, the Administration doesn’t want to give up entirely. The secondary signature will at least provide a minor symbolic boost to the Buenos Aires Conference. The bottom line, however, is that the Buenos Aires meeting is a failure for the Clinton Administration. It failed to get the developing nations to agree to emissions reductions and it failed to persuade the European Union (EU) to end its opposition to emissions trading. Thus, the Buenos Aires meeting failed to establish a unified global framework for nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Kyoto is not dead but it is stalled.

Stalled is the operative word because the Administration did score some minor successes in getting a few developing nations to agree to make CO2 reductions. Yesterday, Argentina’s President Carlos Menem said that his country will propose a plan to reduce its emissions at next year’s global warming talks (the Conference of the Parties, or COP-5 talks). What is probably the real motivation behind his pledge, however, is that Argentina stands to earn $700 million a year by selling emissions credits. Argentina is maintaining CO2-absorbing forests and is planning to plant more such forests in the future. The more forests it plants, the more credits it can sell.

Kazakhstan also announced it will accept emissions limits. Kazakhstan — like the rest of the former Soviet Republics – probably has seen a reduction in its emissions since 1990 as a result of converting from a communist to a more market-oriented economy. Thus, it probably stands to make money as well.

This morning, Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute reported that South Africa and Senegal may break from the G-77 group of developing nations and accept limits on greenhouse gas emissions. This is not good from the perspective of skeptics of the global warming treaty because it sets the precedent for other G-77 countries to strike out on their own and opt for the Clinton approach of “meaningful participation.” While this is certainly not enough to persuade the U.S. Senate to ratify Kyoto, it does possibly set a precedent for a growing number of nations gradually agreeing to some sort of greenhouse gas reduction plan — a piecemeal Kyoto approach.

On the other side of the ledger, however, Turkey apparently wants to be excluded from annex I developed nation status so it doesn’t have to make emissions reductions. The word is that Turkey was told by the U.S. that it would get an exemption since Turkey has done a lot to help the U.S. oppose Iraq. However, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat denies any such promise has been made.


Hurricane Mitch to Rescue Buenos Aires Conference?In a desperate play to re-energize the conference, environmentalists are claiming that Hurricane Mitch, the extremely destructive storm that killed an estimated 30,000 people in Central America recently, is the result of global warming. They are claiming that Mitch came so soon after Hurricane Georges and was so destructive that it must be due to global warming.

The argument is absurd, however. Every 20 to 40 years, the frequency and intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes increases temporarily. In the 1920s, Miami was hit by two successive and severe hurricanes. There were similar instances of successive severe hurricanes pummeling the Eastern seaboard in 1960s.

Dr. William Gray of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the nation’s leading hurricane expert, says that this cyclical variance in hurricane strength and intensity is due to changes in the saline concentration in the Atlantic Ocean. The evaporation rate in the mid-Atlantic ocean — the area just north of the equator — is higher than the rainfall. This causes a buildup in the concentration of salt. The saltier the water, the heavier it becomes and the heavy salt water sinks.

There is a natural conveyor belt in the ocean that is constantly moving water north in the Atlantic Ocean to the area roughly around Iceland and Greenland and then moves south taking water down through the South Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean. Then the process reverses, thus creating a continuous circulation pattern.

This is relevant to the hurricane question because the increase in the saline concentration in the Atlantic accelerates this movement of water. As noted earlier, heavy salt water sinks. Thus, when it becomes exceptionally salty, water sinks at a quicker rate, thereby dragging warmer water northward into the mid-Atlantic area where hurricanes form. Warmer water is believed to be linked to hurricane activity.

Several speakers here, including Argentine President Menem, have linked Mitch to global warming and the U.N. is sponsoring a noon press conference today featuring a Professor Obasi who will presumably give scientific credence to this claim. While it is doubtful that the Mitch angle will boost the talks, it is worth rebutting.

(Editor’s note: A study by Christopher W. Landsea, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological found that the number of intense hurricanes — those reaching Saffir-Simpson scale ratings of 3, 4, or 5 — actually declined in the Atlantic basin during the 1970s and 1980s. That trend continued into the 1990s, with 1991-1994 the “quietest” four years on record for hurricane activity. The most severe storm activity this century may actually have been over 70 years ago, when far less greenhouse gases were emitted by human sources. According to a study by Dr. Roger A. Pielke of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Christopher Landsea, hurricanes were nearly 2.7 times more costly from 1925-1929 than they were the first five years of this decade, once changes in population, wealth and inflation are factored in. The average annual losses to hurricanes totaled $17.7 billion from 1925-1929, compared to just $6.6 billion from 1990-1995.)

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