Climate Storm: Kyoto pact is confirmed, but conflict continues

An international meeting that was supposed to cement environmental rules stemming from the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming ended with little consensus besides an agreement to hold more discussions.

The meeting, held Dec. 6 to 17, 2004, in Buenos Aires, was the first since Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol in November. Russia’s approval fulfills the condition that countries responsible for more than 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases have ratified the treaty, so the agreement will take effect on Feb. 16. The Kyoto Protocol commits ratifying countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, by 2012, to 5 percent below their 1990 emissions.

The meeting opened in a celebratory mood, but divisions quickly emerged. The United States, which hasn’t ratified the treaty, allied with major oil producers and some developing countries and attempted to derail plans for a 2005 meeting to discuss greenhouse-gas reductions after 2012. However, a last-minute compromise states that a single, “informal” meeting will take place next May.

Conflict blocked agreement on compensation for the effects of climate change on small island states.

The assembled nations, including the United States, didn’t argue over the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and rising temperatures, a point of past contention. However, they did debate the connection between weather-related disasters and climate change. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released figures showing that 2004 was the costliest year on record for worldwide hurricane and other weather-related damage. The price tag was $90 billion for the first 10 months of 2004, compared with $65 billion for all of 2003.

“Climate scientists anticipate an increase in intensity of extreme weather events,” warns UNEP head Klaus Toepfer, “and this is what the insurance industry is experiencing, resulting in . . . losses.”

Recent increased storm activity didn’t reflect human influence, said Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., the administrator of the Washington, D.C.–based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at a press conference held by the U.S. delegation. “There is no scientific direct evidence that connects the storms with climate change,” he said. He attributed the increased damage to natural weather cycles.

The director of the UNEP study, Thomas Loster of the Munich, Germany, insurance company Munich Re, later responded by pointing to computer simulations by NOAA scientist Thomas R. Knutson, which predict more intense tropical storms.

Knutson’s research, which appeared in the Sept. 15, 2004 Journal of Climate, projected the effect of carbon dioxide–concentration increases of 1 percent per year—less than the current rate—over 80 years and predicted that tropical storms will become half a category greater in strength, on average.

However, Knutson told Science News that he doubts that climate change underlies any significant increase in hurricane activity so far.

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