The Road from Rio To Kyoto: How Climate Science was Distorted to Support Ideological Objectives

S. Fred Singer *

I want to present you with the quaint proposition that climate science is relevant for the Kyoto Protocol. I recognize, of course, that politicians have already pronounced the science as "settled," that they have even invented a "scientific consensus," and that they have stipulated that the emission of greenhouse ("GH") gases will created a calamity for mankind on this planet.

I must inform you, however, that the science is not settled (as claimed by Vice President Gore), that it is not "compelling" (as claimed by President Clinton), and that there is certainly no scientific consensus favoring global warming. If anything, the largest number of scientists, some 17,000, signed a petition against the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. And in July 1997, the US Senate passed a Resolution opposing a Kyoto-like treaty by a vote of 95 to zero.

Science, by its very nature, depends on data, and not on speculation. Results cannot be derived by theory alone, in the absence of actual observations — and certainly not by vote. But it is possible to distort scientific facts without actually falsifying the data. As I will demonstrate to you here, one can present facts selectively and ignore those that contradict the preconceived outcome, and thereby affect policy.

Examples of Scientific Distortion

  1. 1. Let us start with the oft-repeated statement that "global mean surface air temperature has increased by between about 0.3 and 0.6 °C since the late 19th century" IPCC 1996, Climate Change 1995, Summary for Policymakers,at 4 [hereafter Climate Change 1995]. This source does not reveal, however, that the temperature rise occurred before 1940 and was followed by a decline between 1940 and 1975 (even while the level of greenhouse gases increased rapidly). See Figure 1. Thus the reader is led to believe that the temperature rise is due to the increasing level of GH gases. But the theoretical climate models cannot explain this observed temperature history, which is most likely the result of natural climate fluctuations that dominate over human influences. See Singer (1999).

  2. 2. You have undoubtedly read that the 20th century is the warmest in 600 years of climate history. See Climate Change 1995 at 5. Again, this statement is entirely correct, but also incomplete. It does not reveal that the period from about 1400 to 1850 A.D. spanned the aptly named "Little Ice Age." Nor do we learn that a little further back in the climate record the temperature was much warmer than today; the so-called Medieval Climate Optimum occurred around 1100 A.D., when the Vikings were able to settle Greenland.

  3. 3. Of course, all climate information, whether from thermometers or from proxies (like tree rings or isotope data in ice cores and ocean sediment cores) comes from just a few places on the globe, mostly from land areas that occupy only 30% of the Earth's surface. The only truly global temperature data come from weather satellites, beginning in 1979. They show a slight but persistent cooling of the global atmosphere; but you will find no reference to this in the IPCC document. In fact, the existence of satellites is not even mentioned there.

  4. 4. The IPCC document refers to an "unprecedented" warming of "unprecedented" rapidity in the next century. Even if climate-model forecasts were correct and validated by actual observations, the IPCC claim is not borne out by historical data. The planet has experienced larger and more rapid temperature swings throughout geological times. See Figure 2. The planet has also experienced a concentration of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, at 20 times the present level during recorded geological history, dwarfing the increase due to fossil-fuel burning, which may (or may not) result in a doubling of CO2 levels.

  5. 5. The Council members of the American Geophysical Union ("AGU"), the professional society of Earth scientists, recently adopted a position statement on global warming. It was drafted by a small group and was never submitted to the AGU membership for review or comment. It states that greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere for "up to thousands of years." This sounds ominous, until one realizes that half of the released carbon dioxide is absorbed within 30 years, little remains beyond 100 years — and only minute quantities persist for millennia. This misleading phrase originally read "from decades to thousands of years" before the word "decades" was edited out in the final version.

  6. 6. The same AGU statement announces that increases in carbon dioxide in the geological past were "associated" with increases in temperature. This is technically correct but, again, likely to mislead readers into believing that CO2 increases caused the temperature increases. Not so. Detailed measurements with adequate time resolution show that the temperature increases of the three last transitions from Ice Ages to interglacial warm periods all preceded the CO2 increases by about 600 years. Thus, the cause-effect relation is clear: temperature increases in the ocean likely released CO2 into the atmosphere. See Singer at 73 (1999), p.73.

  7. 7. Similarly misleading is the much-touted association between the temperature increase of the last century and the observed sea-level rise (of about 18 cm.) during the same period. The innocent reader would naturally assume that increases in temperature due to increasing greenhouse gases would accelerate the rise of sea level by melting glaciers, thereby raising popular fears of disappearing island nations and flooded coastal plains. Just the opposite is true, however. Warming of the ocean produces more evaporation, more rain, and therefore, more ice accumulation in the Polar Regions. A detailed analysis of available data shows that this process is the more important one, transferring water from the oceans to the icecaps, see Singer at 18 (1999); therefore, a future warming should retard the rise of the sea level.

  8. 8. The first IPCC report, published in 1990, stated that the "warming is broadly consistent with the predictions of climate models" See IPCC 1990, Summary for Policymakers, at xii. This obviously misleading statement was dropped when the second IPCC Assessment was published in 1996. Its chief conclusion, as stated in the Summary for Policymakers, see IPCC 1996, at 4, was that "the balance of evidence suggests there is a discernible human influence on global climate." This ambiguous statement is devoid of real meaning, and thus can mean anything one wishes to read into it. In July 1996, a Ministerial Declaration issued in Geneva chose to interpret the IPCC conclusion as ratifying a temperature increase of 2° C by the year 2100.1 The assembled ministers clearly ignored the IPCC scientific report itself, which states, see IPCC 1996, at 434, that "to date, pattern-based studies have not been able to quantify the magnitude of a greenhouse gas or aerosol effect on climate." The IPCC leadership, however, chose not to inform the ministers of this conflict.

  9. 9. Just how did the IPCC leadership conclude that a human influence could be discerned? It was based mainly on a graph, see IPCC 1996, fig. 8.10, at 433, which depicts the correlation (between observed and predicted temperature patterns) as increasing between 1940 and 1990. To help the reader reach this conclusion, the graph also shows a straight line sloping upward towards to the right, marked as "50-year linear trend." See Figure 3a. The source of the graph is a scientific paper, see Santer et al. (1995), published only after the IPCC report was approved. But that original graph shows not only the positive trend but also a zero trend and even a negative trend; it all depends on an arbitrary choice on time interval. See Figure 3b. What is significant is that all trends, except the positive 50-year trend, were evidently edited out when the graph was reproduced in the IPCC report.

  10. 10. The IPCC report itself also underwent some remarkable editing between the time it was approved in December 1995 and printed in May 1996. See Seitz (1996). The "scientific cleansing" involves the surreptitious deletion of several phrases that had been approved by the scientists working on the report — phrases that threw doubt on the idea of a "discernible human influence."2 The international scientific journal Nature remarked in an editorial that governmental representatives made these later-discovered text changes so that the IPCC report would "conform" to the Summary, a politically negotiated document. This rather strange procedure, possibly illegal and certainly unannounced, was apparently made at the behest of the U.S. State Department. Nature mentions a State Department letter, which indeed asked that the chapters be adjusted after the Summary had been agreed to.

  11. 11. The Kyoto Protocol (which calls for an average 5.2% emission reduction, with respect to 1990 levels, by industrialized countries) will actually require a reduction of more than 30% by the United States within the next decade — a daunting task that would be certain to cause economic damage and result in job losses measured in millions. Much has been made of the claim that the Kyoto Protocol, though costly, is necessary to avoid deleterious climate change. If one were to accept the model result published by IPCC, however, even a punctilious observance of the Protocol would lower the calculated temperature rise in 2050 from 1.40° C to 1.35° C, a reduction of only 0.05° C — undetectable and certainly inconsequential. See Singer at 68 (1999). Again, according to the IPCC, stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require an immediate emission reduction of 60%, with respect to 1990 levels, by all countries, industrialized and developing, see IPCC 1990, at xi, xvi. Thus, the Kyoto Protocol is not only ineffective, but also politically unfeasible.

  12. 12. We finally ask the question that should have been asked at the very beginning: What is the ultimate purpose of the 1992 global climate treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change ("FCCC") adopted in Rio de Janeiro, which the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to put into effect? It is not a reduction in emissions, as many might think. Article 2 of the FCCC calls for "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." The IPCC was asked by the chairman of the Kyoto Conference to define this goal, to determine which levels are "dangerous" and which levels are safe for the climate system. The IPCC has not responded to this request as yet. One may conclude, therefore, that the Kyoto Protocol is trying to impose drastic policies before it is known even whether a higher or lower level of greenhouse gases is preferable. We do have geological evidence, however, which shows that periods of lower temperature and lower CO2 concentrations are associated with large climate instability, while warmer periods have a more stable climate showing less variability. See Singer (1997).

Conclusion: A Digression into Economics

Stepping away from climate science, it may be of more than passing interest to learn that the conclusions of the IPCC about the negative economic impact of warming have been drastically revised. A recent reevaluation by a team of 26 respected economists, see Mendelsohn and Neumann (1999), concluded that a warming of the climate, and higher CO2 concentrations, would lead to net benefits, rather than net losses. The major benefits would accrue to agriculture and forestry. In other words, global warming is good for you and for humanity. See Moore (1998).


  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment, edited by J.T. Houghton et al., 365 pp., Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1990.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) WGI, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, edited by J.T. Houghton et al., 572 pp., Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1996.
  • Mendelsohn, R., and J. E. Neumann (Eds.), The Impact of Climate Change on the United States Economy, 331 pp., Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1999.
  • Moore, T. G. Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry about Global Warming. Cato Institute: Washington, D. C. 1998.
  • Santer, B.D, K.E. Taylor, T.M.L. Wigley, J.E. Penner, PD. Jones and U. Cubasch, 1995: "Towards the detection and attribution of an anthropogenic effect on climate." Clim. Dyn., 12:79—100.
  • Seitz, F. A Major Deception on Global Warming. Wall Street Journal. June 12, 1996.
  • Singer, S.F., Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate, (2nd edition)., The Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., 1999.
  • Singer, S.F., "Unknowns About Climate Variability Render Treaty Targets Premature." Eos, Transactions AGU, 78:584, December 16, 1997.

* Dr. S. Fred Singer is President of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a nonprofit policy research group that he founded in 1990. He is also a distinguished research professor at George Mason University, and a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia. His latest book, Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate, was first published in 1997 and now is in its second edition. A different version of this article was presented at a Symposium entitled "An Assessment of the Kyoto Protocol," organized by the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review and held on April 15, 1999.

1. Recognize and endorse the Second Assessment Report of the IPCC as currently the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of the science of climate change, its impacts and response options now available. Ministers believe that the Second Assessment Report should provide a scientific basis for urgently strengthening action at the global, regional and national levels, particularly action by Annex I Parties to limit and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and for all Parties to support the development of a Protocol or another legal instrument; and note the findings of the IPCC, in particular the following: "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate. Without specific policies to mitigate climate change, the global average surface temperature relative to 1900 is projected to increase by about 2°C (between 1° C and 3.5° C) by 2100; average sea level is projected to rise by about 50 centimeters (between 15 and 95 centimeters) above present levels by 2100. Stabilization of atmospheric concentrations at twice pre-industrial levels will eventually require global emissions to be less than 50 percent of current levels." Ministerial Declaration, Geneva (July 1996) (¶ 2, and sub-paragraph 1).

2. Phrases edited out of the IPCC Report

  1. "None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gases."
  2. While some of the pattern-based studies discussed here have claimed detection of a significant climate change, no study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic [man-made] causes. Nor has any study quantified the magnitude of a greenhouse-gas effect or aerosol effect in the observed data-an issue of primary relevance to policy makers."
  3. "Any claims of positive detection and attribution of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced."
  4. "While none of these studies has specifically considered the attribution issue, they often draw some attribution conclusions, for which there is little justification."
  5. "When will an anthropogenic effect on climate be identified? It is not surprising that the best answer to this question is, `we do not know.'"
  6. "[I]t is essential that the chapters not be finalized prior to the completion of discussions at the IPCC WG I plenary in Madrid, and that chapter authors be prevailed upon to modify their text in an appropriate manner following discussion in Madrid." Letter from Day Mount, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Environmental and Development, to Sir John Houghton of Nov. 15, 1995.

2001 The Federalist Society