The Magazine

The Secret History of Climate Alarmism

A very German story of power politics disguised as environmentalism

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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Changes in the earth’s atmosphere, the additional greenhouse effect and the resultant changes in the climate .  .  . represent a global danger for humanity and the entire biosphere of the earth. If no effective counteracting measures are taken, dramatic consequences are to be expected for all of the earth’s regions.

This warning will undoubtedly seem familiar, perhaps even mind-numbingly so. But if the substance sounds like the same-old same-old, the date on which it was issued might seem surprising. It was not in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit or indeed anytime in the last decade. The above passage is nearly two decades old. It comes from a resolution adopted by the German Bundestag in September 1991.

The resolution in question summarizes and endorses the recommendations of a parliamentary commission of inquiry on “Taking Precautionary Action to Protect the Earth’s Atmosphere.” The commission had been set up in October 1987. Appearing before the Bundestag some seven months earlier, Chancellor Helmut Kohl had warned that the “greenhouse effect” threatened to bring about “a grave pattern of climate change” and had called for the burning of fossil fuels to be limited, not just in Germany but “worldwide.” 

The June 1987 motion to form the commission envisioned “greenhouse gas” emissions producing “a global warming of from three to seven degrees Celsius” and called for counteracting measures to be taken even in the absence of scientific corroboration of the supposed threat—since otherwise, the document concludes darkly, “in a few decades .  .  . it could be too late.”

The original impulse to take action had come from the German Physics Society, which in January 1986 published a “Warning of an Impending Climate Catastrophe.” Just over six months later, in August, the newsweekly Der Spiegel popularized the German physicists’ “warning” in a spectacular cover story headlined “The Climate Catastrophe.” The image on the cover of the magazine depicted Cologne’s historic cathedral surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean: a consequence of the melting of the polar ice caps, as was explained on the inside of the issue. Thus was the “global warming” scare born. In Germany, in 1986. 

In a report submitted to the Bundestag on October 2, 1990, the commission of inquiry laid out a veritable “roadmap” for concerted international action to combat “climate change.” The commission called for CO2 emissions to be cut by 30 percent by the year 2005 in all “economically strong industrialized countries.” Germany itself was called upon to meet this goal. But the formulation “economically strong industrialized countries” was clearly tailored to fit Germany’s major economic rivals: Japan and the United States. The report also calls for a 20-25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions among all the countries of the then European Community and a 20 percent reduction for all industrialized countries. “One needs to convince the other countries concerned of the necessity of such ambitious targets,” the report explains, “and to arrive as quickly as possible at corresponding international agreements.” The report declared it to be “urgently necessary” that a first international convention on “climate-relevant emissions” be adopted “at the latest in 1992 during the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil.”

And so it would come to pass. It was at the 1992 U.N. conference—more commonly known as the “Rio Earth Summit”—that a certain American senator began his career as would-be prophet of warming-induced gloom and doom. Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance was timed for release just before the summit began. It was also here that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature. 

It would be wrong to say that the climate change convention was merely “anticipated” by the work of the German Bundestag’s commission of inquiry. The commission’s 1990 report contains a full draft of such a “framework convention.” The proposed convention was supposed to be supplemented later on by a protocol establishing the concrete emissions reduction obligations of the parties. This would become the Kyoto Protocol. 

The German commission stated that the protocol should “come into force by 1995 at the latest.” In this respect, however, the international community was not able to keep to the schedule laid down by the German parliamentary commission. The Kyoto Protocol would first be adopted in 1997, and it would only come into force in 2005—as is well known, without the participation of the United States. Under the terms of the treaty, the assigned emissions targets are supposed to be met by the end of 2012.

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