Things don’t look promising for the perennial climate confab which convenes in Durban, South Africa today. There is little chance of extending the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Kyoto has turned into a giant international scam that has already wasted hundreds of billions, with little to show for it; in fact, the increase in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases has been accelerating.

What brings nearly 200 delegations together is a dream—the forlorn hope that developed nations who have ratified the Protocol will come up with a $100-billion-per-year aid program. This is supposed to allow developing nations to adapt to the putative climate disasters that the IPCC, the U.N.’s climate-science panel, has been predicting for more than 20 years. The U.S., which never ratified Kyoto, is expected to supply the lion’s share of this subsidy. Fat chance; just look at the polls and listen to the statements from leading Republican presidential candidates who denounce these disaster predictions as “hoax” and “poppycock.”

But the 10,000 or so Durban attendees—official delegates, U.N. and government officials, journalists, NGO types, and other hangers-on—will have a grand old time: two weeks of feasting, partying, living it up in luxury hotels, and greeting old friends at this 17th reunion—all at someone else’s expense. Statesmen will arrive on the last day to sign important-sounding communiqués and quickly depart before having to explain just how they will “save the climate” and humanity.

Developed nations are on a guilt trip, convinced that their industrial development has resulted in most of the past rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But is this necessarily bad? Have extreme climate events really increased? Can we even trace and prove a measurable anthropogenic effect on climate? Or, more likely perhaps, have higher CO2 levels improved crop yields and averted mass starvation of a growing world population? What does science have to say about this?

That’s where the U.N.-IPCC should come into play. But its credibility has been irreparably damaged—especially in the past two years. Personally, I tend to discount the recent revelations of the e-mails of “Climategate” bearing on IPCC incompetence and lack of trustworthiness. These e-mails are not telling me anything new. The “usual suspects” are seen to be plotting and scheming to support “the cause”—even as some of them are beginning to have doubts. Yet they continue to hide information, manipulate data, and subvert the peer-review process, the bedrock of scientific integrity. The damage they cause to the general scientific enterprise is hard to overestimate.

But quite aside from the non-ethical behavior of the IPCC principals, what about the science itself? Perhaps the science isn’t so certain after all—even though the IPCC report of 2007 claims to be 90 to 99 percent sure that most of the claimed warming between 1978 and 2000 is anthropogenic, caused by carbon dioxide from the burning of fuels to generate energy.

As an atmospheric scientist, I am intrigued by the results of the BEST project, said to “confirm” the findings of the temperature analyses of the IPCC. Indeed, they all seem to show a rapid warming of the land surface between 1978 and 2000. So, it is claimed, this proves that “global warming is real.”

But I wonder about the logic of this assertion. After all, BEST and IPCC are not really independent; they all rely on readings from land-surface thermometers at weather stations. Even though BEST used about five times as many stations, these covered the same land area—less than 30% of the Earth’s surface—with recording stations that are poorly distributed, mainly in the U.S. and Western Europe.

The warmistas apparently have not listened to the somewhat skeptical pronouncements from Prof. Richard Muller, the originator and leader of the well-documented and transparent BEST study. He states that 70% of U.S. stations are badly sited and don’t meet the standards set by government; the rest of the world is likely worse.

But unlike the land surface, the atmosphere has shown no warming trend, either over land or over ocean—according to satellites and independent data from weather balloons. This indicates to me that there is something very wrong with the land-surface data. Climate models, run on supercomputers, all insist that the atmosphere must warm faster than the surface—and so does theory.

How, then, does one explain the absence of any warming of the atmosphere? I have real doubts about reported warming of the oceans during the same time period. And there is little question that proxy (non-thermometer) data show mostly no post-1978 warming trend. I note that the multi-proxy analysis published by Michael Mann et al (Nature, 1998) suddenly stops in 1978. I would place a small bet that this analysis shows no post-1978 warming—which may be why it was withheld.

None of the warmistas can explain why the climate hasn’t warmed in the 21st century, while CO2 has been increasing rapidly. Muller is careful to make no claim whatsoever that the warming he finds is due to human causes. He tells us that one third of the 39,000 stations used by BEST show cooling, not warming trends—and admits that “the uncertainty [involved in these stations] is large compared to the analyses of global warming.” Muller nevertheless insists that if he uses a large enough set of bad numbers, he could get a good average. I am not so sure.

It might be a good idea if BEST would carry out some prudent internal checks to eliminate possible sources of error. Of course, the most important checks must come from records—atmosphere, ocean, and proxies—that are independent of weather station thermometers. Even then, it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of climate change.

I conclude, therefore, that the balance of evidence favors little if any global warming during 1978-2000; it contradicts the main conclusion of the IPCC—i.e., that recent warming is “very likely” (90%-99% certain) caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases like CO2. There is no evidence at all for significant future warming. BEST is a valuable effort, but it does not settle the climate debate.

So we are left with a puzzle: why do land-surface data differ from all other independent climate results? Is there really substantial global warming to support the IPCC’s conclusion of AGW? These are the fundamental questions to focus on in Durban—not extension of the moribund Kyoto Protocol.