"Warning on Warming" - a few corrections needed

Gareth Davies

Our web site front page carries the article Warning on Warming, written by best-selling author Bill McKibben, a frequent contributor to The New York Review. Mr. McKibbon is also a "scholar in residence" at Middlebury College and the author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.



Mr. McKibben is undoubtedly esteemed by the environmental movement and certainly respected by others, as no doubt he should be.

However, his article Warning on Warming contains just a few inaccuracies. These may be of no substantive concern as he may have "got it right" anyway with regard to the conservative nature of the Summary of the [pending] 4th Assessment Report of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. Whatever I say below with regard to these inaccuracies, however, let me say now that I enjoyed reading the article and agree with much of what it says, including his belief that the Greenland and Antarctic ice cover is melting, though for different reasons. But let's debug the article, as it were, if only to set the record straight.

The Antarctic and Greenland ice cover.

As the west side of Antarctica melts, the east side grows ice, perhaps as much as 8%, compensating for the loss. This is, in fact, indirectly referred to in the IPCC Summary Report itself. The scientists comprising the IPCC admit they do not yet understand what is going on in Antarctica and are perplexed.

Mr. McGibbon seems unaware of the melt and regrowth of ice in the Antarctic and does not acknowledge that as yet there is no "hard" evidence that the Greenland ice cap will melt any time soon. So to suggest that the IPCC is too conservative in its findings based on the Greenland ice cap melt and Antarctic ice cover melt cannot be yet justified, though I would be the first to apply the "Precautionary Principle" to the situation. But that is not what Mr. McKibbon did.

Global warming as a public issue and hypothesis

First, Mr. McKibben states:

    Although atmospheric scientists had studied the problem for decades, global warming first emerged as a public issue in 1988 when James Hansen, a NASA scientist, told Congress that his research, and the work of a handful of other scientists, indicated that human beings were dangerously heating the planet, particularly through the use of fossil fuels.


    From roughly 1988 to 1995, the hypothesis that burning coal and gas and oil in large quantities was releasing carbon dioxide and other gases that would trap the sun's radiation on Earth and disastrously heat the planet remained just that: a hypothesis.

The emergence of global warming and climate change did not just occur in 1988, but can be traced to the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which was remarkable for its early foresight:

    Declaration 3: ... We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere; destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources; and gross deficiencies, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.

For more see:


Following the 1972 Stockholm Conference was the 1992 Rio Conference, which produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC. The Preamble to that Convention asserts, jointly by almost all the countries of the world, that global warming and climate change are anything but a hypothesis. The Preamble is a remarkable document in itself and well worth the easy read.

The State Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to meet on a regular future basis, each such meeting being progressively numbered and entitled Conference of the Parties (COP). Thus, the next time the Parties met was in 1995 in Berlin, COP1, then they met in Geneva the following year, COP2, then they met in 1997 in Kyoto, COP3. The last such meeting was held in Nairobi in 2006, COP12.

For the full text of the Preamble to the UNFCCC, go to:


No mention is made by Mr. McKibbon of the targets set by the Rio Conference in 1992. In 1992, the UNFCCC imposed "non binding" targets for greenhouse gas emissions on the State Parties, which included the US and Canada, whereby levels equivalent to 1990 levels would be attained by 2000, but as we all know, that failed utterly. The point being, however, that a full blown international conference is hardly going to set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases based upon an hypothesis.


Mr. McKibbon refers to the IPCC as a curious hybrid.

    Under the auspices of the United Nations, scientists and governments set up a curious hybrid, the IPCC, to track and report on the progress of that research.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), supported by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), to assess scientific, technical and socio- economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. It is not a curious hybrid, but the ultimate weather forecasting program comprised of the appropriate scientific experts, set up by, what else, but the WMO.


Mr. McKibbon does not mention the SBSTA, that is "The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice". This body of scientists was created by the Parties to the Kyoto Conference to advise them on climate change and global warming. It receives input by way of statements and relevant papers by

    the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),
    the World Health Organization (WHO),
    the World Meteorological Organization (WMO),
    the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),
    the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), and
    the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change.

As can be seen, the information provided by the IPCC is but one aspect of the total body of information garnered by SBSTA. In receipt of such continuing vital information, SBSTA advises the Parties to Kyoto at each subsequent conference on the state of affairs of global warming and climate change. The Parties alone make, at each subsequent conference, the decisions as to what action is required to counter climate change and global warming.

The role of the US

Mr. McKibbon finds the role of the US to be out of step with the rest of the world:

    The 1995 consensus was convincing enough for Europe and Japan: the report's scientific findings were the basis for the Kyoto negotiations and the treaty they produced; those same findings also led most of the developed world to produce ambitious plans for reductions in carbon emissions. But the consensus didn't extend to Washington, and hence everyone else's efforts were deeply compromised by the American unwillingness to increase the price of energy. Our emissions continued to soar, and the plans of many of the Kyoto countries in Western Europe to reduce emissions sputtered.

The language here is confusing somewhat. The "1995 consensus" referred to is in fact the 1995 IPCC Report, not a consensus. To say " But the consensus didn't extend to Washington" suggests that Washington refused to participate in a consensus decision. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Washington was wary of the 1995 IPCC Report, but it remained very much an active State Party in the international proceedings.

As I have already mentioned, the "non binding" solutions failed utterly, and not just on the part of the US either, but on the part of all Parties. Contrary to Mr. McKibbon's assertion that the US got itself out of step with the rest of the world in 1995, the US remained active at the Conferences of the Parties right up to COP6, held at the Hague in 2000 when the US forced the conference to temporarily grind to a halt.

By this time, 2000, although signatories to Kyoto, both Canada and the US had not "ratified" the Kyoto Protocol, that is to say, they had not yet agreed to be bound by the targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol. That option remained open and was only taken up by Canada in 2002.

However, at COP 6, three years after Kyoto and five years after the 1995 IPCC Report, the US tried to force a compromise and the meeting of COP6 collapsed in shambles. COP 6 reassembled the following year in Bonn, but in the meantime the US (under newly elected President George W. Bush) refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. COP 6 was last time that the US attended meetings of COP as a State Party and sits now as an observer only.

For a concise background to KYOTO go to UN web site:


Maurice Strong

The 1972 Stockholm Conference was hosted by world famous and renowned environmentalist, Maurice Strong, a Canadian scientist, who was also the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the first Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, UNEP. For a bio on Maurice Strong see: