Talking Point Whack-a-Mole (1997 edition)
Debating science with the postmodernist right is that their position is not so much a worldview as a collection of talking points. As regards passive smoking, for example, I don’t suppose anyone seriously believes that breathing cigarette smoke is harmless. But since all good rightwingers oppose regulation to restrict smoking, and are (mostly) unwilling to simply come out and say that nonsmokers should put up with the risk associated with other people’s smoke, they cling desperately to the occasional wins they have had such as the Osteen decision in 1998 (a court judgement, later overturned, critical of an even older report by the US EPA).
As this example illustrates, these talking points are just about impossible to kill. People like Andrew Bolt are still going on about the 1997 Oregon petition, in which a lot of people (about 1 per cent of whom had any more relevant qualifications than I do) agreed with a misleading statement sent out by a lunatic-fringe thinktank, and were then quoted as ‘scientists who reject global warming’. But delusionism on the science of global warming is pretty much dead, even if it maintains a zombie existence in the columns of the Sun-Herald and the fringes of the blogosphere. The main line of argument now is that, granted that global warming is real, we should do nothing about it, at least for the next few decades.
So, another talking point from ten years ago has surfaced. The factual basis is that, back in 1997, the US Senate passed, by 95-0, the (non-binding) Byrd-Hagel resolution, which stated that the US should not sign an agreement at Kyoto unless it included emissions targets for developing countries. Later that year, the Clinton Administration went ahead and negotiated the Kyoto protocol without first-round targets for developing countries, but did not submit it for ratification.
This ten-year old vote is being cited today, most recently in the Shergold report (the PMs Task Group on emissions trading) as evidence that the US will never ratify Kyoto, or, more generally, an agreement that imposes more stringent requirements on developed countries like the US than on China and India. This isn’t quite as silly as Andrew Bolt quoting the Oregon petition, but it isn’t a whole lot better.
It’s reasonable enough to cite Byrd-Hagel as evidence that, as of 1997, the US Senate was unlikely to ratify an agreement like Kyoto. But ten years is a long time. Even if the Senate had never addressed the issue again, it would be a bit silly to refer to this vote as conclusive evidence on how Kyoto is viewed today. But in fact, of course, the Senate has addressed the issue again. In 2003, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which called for caps on emissions of greenhouse gases was defeated by 55-43, with strong opposition from the Bush Administration.
43 votes is a long way short of the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. On the other hand, the Senate looks a lot greener after the 2006 elections, and could be even more so after 2008. And a determined Administration, especially a newly-elected one, can usually swing a fair number votes. Maybe the US will ratify Kyoto after Bush goes, and maybe not. Either way, the evidentiary value of a non-binding resolution passed ten years ago is close to zero.