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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This impression is, however, deceptive. The graph below illustrates the evolution of German carbon dioxide emissions. It has been adapted from a 2010 textbook on Renewable Energy and Climate Change by Volker Quasch­ning of Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences. As the blue curve shows, even if we consider just CO2 emissions, the country has already met its Kyoto target. But as the other two curves in the graph make clear, this seemingly impressive achievement is largely just a statistical byproduct of the precipitous fall in eastern German emissions in the early 1990s. The evolution of CO2 emissions in eastern Germany is represented by the green curve. The red curve represents the evolution of CO2 emissions in western Germany. As can be seen, on Quaschning’s calculations, they have barely diminished from 1990 till today.

To the degree that Germany has recorded any additional decline in CO2 emissions in recent years, incidentally, it would appear mostly to be due not to the development of renewable energy sources, but rather to a simple shift away from coal—the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels—to oil or natural gas. The United Kingdom recorded reductions in CO2 emissions due to the same pattern of substitution.

On closer inspection, Germany thus got off with what is in fact a remarkably light emissions reduction “burden.” Thanks to the sharing of the German emissions windfall, other members of the EU-15 were let off the hook altogether. 

For instance, France. In his victory speech in May 2007, president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy lectured the United States on the fight against “global warming.” “A great nation like the United States has the obligation not to obstruct the struggle against global warming,” Sarkozy intoned, “but, on the contrary, should take the lead in this combat, since what is at stake is the fate of all humanity.” It was easy for him to say. Many commentators have noted that France covers by far the greater part of its electricity needs with nuclear power and hence has only a limited dependence on fossil fuels. Less well known, however, is the fact that under the EU “bubble” arrangement France has no obligation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions at all. It is only supposed to hold them steady at 1990 levels. 

All told, seven of the 15 EU member states forming part of the EU “bubble” have no emissions reduction requirement. Five members of this group are indeed permitted to increase their emissions. Greece, for example, is permitted to increase its emissions by 25 percent; Portugal by 27 percent. According to the European Environmental Agency’s 2009 report on “Greenhouse gas emission trends,” of the eight EU-15 members that accepted reduction tar-gets, only Germany and the U.K. are on track to meet them.

As for the 12 current EU member states that were still just candidates for EU membership at the time of Kyoto’s adoption, these countries got even better deals. Cyprus and Malta were simply left out of Annex I. The other countries, all of them “post-Communist” Eastern European states, were assigned reduction targets of either 6 percent or 8 percent. But they were classified as “Economies in Transition” and as such permitted to opt for a year other than 1990 as their base year or to use the average over a period of years. 

The choice of 1990 was already sufficiently advantageous for many of these countries, but, unsurprisingly, some of them opted to employ a base year or period upstream of 1990 when their still Communist-era industries were pumping out the maximum amount of CO2. It is thus likewise no surprise that almost all of these countries will meet their targets without any difficulty. Miceal O’Ronain has calculated that by the end of 1998, Romania’s CO2 emissions, for example, had fallen by a whopping 56 percent from its emissions levels in its Kyoto base year of 1989. This means that Romania’s nominal “obligation” to reduce emissions by 8 percent was in reality a license to increase them by more than 100 percent.

Despite the fact that the Kyoto Protocol requires little of Germany and its EU partners​—or perhaps, more to the point, precisely because it requires so little of them—the EU has become the major promoter of climate alarmism and Kyoto-style solutions to the ostensible problem. From 2002 through 2009, the European Commission awarded nearly 300 million euros in support to European and international research projects on “climate change” and “climate change mitigation.” (The disgraced “climate scientists” of the University of East Anglia were beneficiaries of no less than 12 such grants.) The EU also provides regular operating subsidies to NGOs engaged in “climate activism.” 

Russia is another country greatly favored by the 1990 Kyoto base year. The protocol merely requires Russia to hold its emissions steady at 1990 levels. Given the collapse of Soviet-era industry, it was and is far below those levels. Thus, the nominal “obligation” in fact guaranteed that Russia would have a vast reservoir of phantom emissions to sell on the international “carbon credits” market. 

Other industrialized countries also received what amount to special indulgences. Australia was not only given the benefit of a positive target. By virtue of what is referred to in the literature as the “Australia clause,” it was also allowed to include emissions from land clearing in the calculation of its emissions total for the 1990 base year. The effect of this was massively to inflate its 1990 emissions total—on some estimates, by as much as 30 percent—thus rendering its real allowance even greater.

But perhaps the most revealing example of how eager Kyoto’s promoters were to swell the ratification registry—and thus isolate the United States—is provided by the case of Israel. For the purposes of the Kyoto protocol, Israel is somehow treated as a “developing” country. Consequently, it incurs no obligations under the treaty.

The United States, by contrast, neither drew any benefit from the choice of the 1990 base year nor received any other sort of indulgence. Its 7 percent reduction target means 7 percent. In light of all the legerdemain employed to render the nominal commitments of other countries meaningless, it is hardly surprising that according to the calculations of Yale economist William Nordhaus, the United States alone was slated to bear some two-thirds of the total costs of the treaty and four times the costs borne by the EU-15.

It should not come as a shock that German negotiators sought to advance German interests in the Kyoto negotiations. A curious detail about the Bundestag’s commission of inquiry sets in relief the amalgam of Green idealism and brass-tacks pursuit of national interest that has characterized Germany’s pushing of the “climate protection” agenda. The chairman of the commission was one Bernd Schmidbauer. In December 1991, Schmidbauer would be named the chief coordinator of all German intelligence agencies. He would hold the position for the next seven years.

The real questions that Americans need to ask concern their own negotiators. How could they have permitted the United States to be boxed into such an obviously prejudicial corner, and why did neither they nor the Clinton administration as such do anything to expose the ruse? 

Of course, that was long ago and the persons responsible have undoubtedly moved on to other things. Take Todd Stern, for instance, who led the American negotiating team at Kyoto. Nowadays, Stern is the Obama administration’s “Special Envoy on Climate Change.” In this capacity, he is again America’s chief negotiator in the current round of talks on a Kyoto follow-up treaty.

John Rosenthal writes regularly on European politics and transatlantic relations for both old and new media. His detailed analysis of the EU’s funding of “climate science” is available in the August/September issue of Policy Review. More of his work can be found at

Recent Blog Posts