Today, Nov. 29, marks the beginning of the Cancun COP (Conference of the Parties [to the Kyoto Protocol]). This is the 16th meeting of the nearly two hundred national delegations, which have been convening annually since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997 at COP-3.

This conference promises to be another two-week extravaganza for some 20,000 delegates and hangers-on, who will be enjoying the sand, surf, and tequila-sours—mostly paid for by taxpayers from the U.S. and Western Europe. For most delegates, this annual vacation has become a lifetime career: it pays for their mortgages and their children’s education. I suppose a few of them actually believe that they are saving the earth—even though the Kyoto Protocol (to limit emission of greenhouse [GH] gases, like CO2, but never submitted for ratification to the U.S. Senate) will be defunct in 2012 and there is—thankfully—no sign of any successor treaty.

But never fear: the organizers may “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and spring a surprise on the world. They will likely announce that they have conquered the greenhouse gas hydrofluorocarbon (HFC). Now, HFCs are what replaced HCFCs, which in turn replaced CFCs, thanks to the Montreal Protocol of 1987. This succession of chemical refrigerants has reduced ozone-destroying potential; but unfortunately they are all GH gases. So now HFCs must be eradicated, because a single molecule of HFC produces many thousand times the greenhouse effect of a molecule of CO2. What they don’t tell you, of course, is that the total forcing from the HFCs is less than one percent of that of CO2, according to the IPCC (see page 141). So “slaying the dragon” amounts to slaying a mouse—or something even smaller. But you can bet that it will be trumpeted as a tremendous achievement and will likely invigorate the search for other mice that can be slain.

Of course, industry has no objection to this maneuver of invoking the Montreal Protocol as a means of reducing the claimed GH-gas effects of global warming. It means more profits from patents, new manufacturing facilities, and sales—and it will eliminate the bothersome competition from factories in India, China, and Brazil that are still manufacturing HCFCs, and in some cases even CFCs. Very likely, these nations will oppose the maneuver. But so should consumers. It will mean replacing refrigerants in refrigerators, air conditioners, and automobiles—at huge cost and to little effect. We don’t even know yet what chemical will replace HFC and how well it will work in existing equipment.

But nobody is supposed to notice this, it is hoped, amid the clamor for an international agreement, or any kind of agreement, really—even if it means misusing the Montreal Protocol. Remember that HFCs have no effect on ozone and therefore are not covered by the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

At this point, it is worth remembering how little has been accomplished by the Montreal Protocol—that “signal achievement” of the global environmental community. As U.S. negotiator Richard Benedick brags (in his book Ozone Diplomacy), the Montreal agreement was achieved by skillful diplomacy rather than by relying on science.

When the Montreal Protocol was negotiated and signed in 1987, there was no evidence whatsoever that CFCs were actually destroying stratospheric ozone. At that time, there were no published observations (by leading Belgian researcher Zander or by others) of any increase in stratospheric chlorine, thereby indicating that natural sources, like salt from ocean spray and volcanoes, were dominating over the human contribution of chlorine from CFCs. The scientific evidence changed only in 1988 (thanks to NASA scientist Rinsland), a year after the Montreal Protocol was signed.

Nevertheless, the hype of the Antarctic Ozone Hole (AOH), which was discovered, only by chance, in 1985, was driving global fears of a coming disaster. In the U.S., there was talk about an Arctic ozone hole opening up. There was even a scare about a “hole over Kennebunkport,” President Bush’s summer home. And of course, the EPA, as usual, was hyping the whole matter to the White House. No wonder that poor George Bush (the elder) agreed to phase out CFCs immediately.

And who still remembers all the lurid tales of blind sheep in Patagonia and of ecological disasters in the Southern Ocean—all the result, supposedly, of the AOH. It turned out later that the unfortunate sheep had pink-eye.

The Montreal Protocol prohibition on manufacturing CFCs has indeed led to the reduction of the atmospheric content of these long-lived CFC molecules. But what about stratospheric ozone itself? There has been little effect on the AOH—just annual fluctuations. And according to the authoritative reports of the World Meteorological Organization, the depletion at mid-latitudes may have been only about 4% over a period ending in 1992. There seems to have been no further depletion since 1993, even while stratospheric chlorine levels were still rising. Something doesn’t quite check out here.

Whatever the cause of the observed 4% ozone depletion may be, compare this piddling amount to the natural variability of total atmospheric ozone, as measured carefully by NOAA: on the order of 100% or more from day to day, seasonal change of 30% to 50%, and an eleven-year sunspot-correlated variation on the order of 3%.

And to top it off, there has been no documented increase at all in solar ultraviolet (UV-B), the radiation that produces sunburn and can lead to skin cancer. All of the monitoring so far has shown no rise over time—and therefore no biological effects due to ozone depletion.

And in any case, theory tells us—and measurements agree—that a 4% depletion amounts to an increase in solar UV equivalent to moving 50 miles to the south, at mid-latitudes. Measured UV-B values increase by 1,000% in going from the pole to equator, as the average solar zenith angle increases.

So look for a “breakthrough” announcement from Cancun, as once again our intrepid negotiators will have “saved the climate”—maybe. In addition to timing and cost issues, some countries will insist that HFCs have no impact on the ozone layer and thus should be handled under the United Nations climate change talks rather than the Montreal Treaty.

A State Department official dismissed that as a legalistic argument and said that the ozone treaty could and should be used to achieve broader environmental objectives. “What we’ve found is that the Montreal Protocol has been a very effective instrument for addressing global environmental problems,” said Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the nation’s chief Montreal Protocol negotiator, in an interview. “It was created to deal with the ozone layer, but it also has tremendous ability to solve the climate problem if people are willing to use it that way.”

Mario Molina, the Mexican scientist who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in identifying the role of chlorofluorocarbons in depleting stratospheric ozone, said that extending the Montreal Protocol to include HFCs could reduce the threat of climate change by several times what the Kyoto Protocol proposes. (Evidently, he has not read the IPCC report in which he is listed as a lead author.) “We understand it’s a stretch to use an international agreement designed for another purpose,” he said. “But dealing with these chemicals and using this treaty to protect the planet makes a lot of sense.”

Maybe Dr. Molina should stick to chemistry.