Posted by: Dr. Breffni Lennon | June 7, 2012

The Miner’s Canary: A Short History of Climate Change Politics and the Kyoto Protocol

While suggestions of global warming and its anthropogenic causes have been put forward in the popular media since the 1930s (Weart, 2003) it was not until the 1970s that it began to be taken more seriously (Kunzig and Broecker, 2008). Over the following decade a consensus steadily grew within the global scientific community that human activity indeed had a case to answer, culminating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit. Officially recognising for the first time the anthropogenic factors that have increasingly been influencing the Earth’s rapidly changing climate systems (along with other systems in the biosphere) since the onset of industrialisation, and mainly through the combined effects of rampant greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) , ozone depletion and deforestation. Another concern at the time (that has also increased rapidly in the intervening years) was the degree of human influence on current mass extinction rates (Eldredge, 1994) in global biodiversity numbers, though this no longer receives the same level of attention in the media.  Both concerns, however, share similarities regarding the extent and depth of influence human activity has in disrupting the Earth’s global bio-systems. As John Gibbons quotes Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University in today’s Irish Times (click here) “we are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now” (Gibbons, 2012). Yet still very little is actually done. Efforts to introduce international legislation to bind countries to meaningful commitments in reducing GHGEs reached a conclusion in 1997 with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, five years after it was initially proposed. The protocol remains the only international agreement to date that is directly focused on stabilising and eventually reducing human-induced GHGEs, in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change (UNFCCC, 2007).

Many of the debates leading up to it were informed by arguments promoting the twin track approach of reducing emissions while at the same time shifting towards more sustainable economic growth and development models (Grubb et al., 1999) and ecological modernisation narratives fed into these debates. In fact, Backstrand and Lovbrand (2006) have suggested that it was the positive win-win discourse of ecological modernisation that saw a number of the techno-environmental modernisation strategies being written in to the protocol, including the highly-contested concept of forest sink projects . It has been argued that this optimism, coupled with the unrepentant diplomatic strategies of a number of key states (namely the United States, Australia, Russia, and Canada) resulted in it being a somewhat watered down version of earlier proposals (Böhringer and Vogt, 2003; Tol, 2005). Indeed, Christoph Böhringer had earlier predicted that the refusal of the United States to sign up to it and the subsequent amendments made to it at the Bonn climate policy conference in 2001 would only reduce the effectiveness of the protocol to almost zero (Böhringer, 2001). Despite these shortcomings the Kyoto Protocol did allow for a number of ancillary environmental benefits to develop particularly in the European Union, benefits that have been estimated that be between €2.5 billion and €7 billion in savings from reduced air pollution alone (van Vuuren, et al., 2006). Also, it can be argued that the Kyoto Protocol incentivised the EU to go further on its own climate change and renewable energy strategies than would have otherwise been the case, since it very much sought to adopt a leadership role on these issues (Yamin, 2000).

However, challenges to the rationale behind the protocol (human-induced climate change) also continued to rage with so-called “climate sceptics”, most vocal in the United States, who continually attack the science behind it (McCright and Dunlap, 2003), using often very unsound and anti-scientific strategies to do so. This has especially been the case in debates across popular media desperate to portray a sense of balance (Monbiot, 2006; Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009). However, scientific consensus has dismissed the sceptics with the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with appraising the latest peer-reviewed research on the subject and then publishing their findings from this work. Indeed it was its First Assessment Report in 1990, along with the 1987 Brundtland Report , that was to largely inform the Earth Summit and the subsequent UNFCCC Treaty. In 2007, the IPCC published its Fourth Assessment Report, in which it unequivocally concluded that the planet is indeed on a warming trajectory and that there was a greater than ninety percent certainty that this warming was due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions (Kunzig and Broecker, 2008). Other significant contributions have been the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, released by the British government a year earlier in 2006. Both documents have remained highly influential and continue to inform debates on how best to meet the challenges of climate change, especially in terms of a switch to a low-carbon economy with its priority on “clean” alternative energies (Klemperer, 2010). No doubt the IPCC’s forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), due in next year in 2013, will make for more uncomfortable reading. And while the climate science continues to be fudged by the sceptics, at least it is being acknowledged. Attempts to check the staggering human-induced mass extinctions rates currently taking place have been depressingly absent. The miner’s canary continues to sing, but only just.


Backstrand, K. and Lovbrand, Eva. (2006) Planting Trees to Mitigate Climate Change: Contested Discourses of Ecological Modernization, Green Governmentality and Civic Environmentalism. In Global Environmental Politics, 6 (1): 50-75.
Böhringer, C. (2001). Climate Politics From Kyoto to Bonn: From Little to Nothing. Discussion Paper No. 01-49. Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), Mannheim, Germany.
Böhringer, C. and Vogt, C. (2003) Economic and Environmental Impacts fo the Kyoto Protocol. In The Canadian Journal of Economics, 36 (2): 475-494.
Eldredge, N. (1994) The Miner’s Canary: Unraveling the Mysteries of Extinction. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Grubb, M., Vrolijk, C. and Brack, D. (1999) The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment. London: Earthscan Publications.
Hoggan, J. and Littlemore, R.D. (2009) Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
Kunzig, R. and Broecker, W. (2008) Fixing Climate: The story of climate science – and how to stop global warming. Green Profile in association with Sort of Books.
McCright, A.M. and Dunlap, R.E. (2003) Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy. In Social Problems, 50 (3): 348-373.
Monbiot, G. (2006) Heat: How we can stop the planet burning. London: Penguin.
Tol, R.S.J. (2005) An emission intensity protocol for climate change: an application of FUND. In Climate Policy, 4 (3): 269-287.
UNFCCC (2007) UNFCCC Executive Secretary: worst effects of climate change can be staved off if appropriate international action to mitigate is speedily taken. Press Release. [Online] Available: here. (Accessed: 09/12/2010).
Weart, S.R. (2003) The Discovery of Global Warming. Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press. Revised and Expanded Edition edition (2008).
Yamin, F. (2000) The Role of the EU in Climate Negotiations. In Gupta, J. and Grubb, M.J. (eds.), Chp4., Climate Change and European Leadership: A Sustainable Role for Europe? Environment & Policy Series, Vol. 27. Dordrecht: Luwer Academics Publishers.


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