Science Academies Endorse Kyoto Treaty

As the Bush Administration dithers over what it might do to address global warming, 17 national academies of science cut to the chase in an editorial in the 18 May issue of Science. Affirming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) conclusion that human activities are warming the planet, the statement urges those with "doubts"--by implication, the United States--to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which would impose binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized countries.

Notably absent from the list of signers is the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It was invited to sign, but the NAS board felt it could not endorse a document it did not help draft, particularly on a few days' notice, says F. Sherwood Rowland, NAS foreign secretary. According to several sources, the statement's explicit backing of the Kyoto Protocol was a problem. The protocol is "regulatory, not science," Rowland says. The academy, moreover, is conducting its own expedited review of the IPCC report and did not want to be seen to prejudge the outcome. "This is a complicated subject, and the National Academy wants to hear from its chosen experts after having looked at it thoroughly," Rowland says.

Many scientists--and indeed, the 17 national academies--think the IPCC has already performed a thorough enough evaluation in its report, for which over 2500 scientists pored over data for 3 years. In their statement, the academies, including those of Australia, France, China, and India, write: "Doubts ... expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risk posed by global climate change" are not "justified." Ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol "represents a small but essential first step" to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases.

White House officials, however, apparently question the IPCC's conclusions, and after "informal discussions" with the Administration, NAS officials say, NAS decided to review them. Over the next few weeks, an 11-member panel will try to answer questions that IPCC already covered. The panel will decide, for example, whether human-produced greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change, and by how much temperatures will rise. The panel includes seven academy members, including Rowland, a Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist, and Richard Lindzen, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a global warming skeptic. The panel expects to issue its report by early June.