Editor’s Note: This is the last edition of The Climate Post with writer Mason Inman. Watch for the Post’s return March 22 with a new writer, the Nicholas Institute’s Director of Strategy and Operations, Jan Mazurek.
After public pressure, Chicago will shut two aging coal-fired power plants, and the owner of one of the power plants, Midwest Generation, may shut its other four coal plants in Illinois. Since the start of 2010, more than 100 coal plants have been slated for early retirement.
A major reason for coal plants shutting has been public opposition to pollution from coal. Also, looming requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for stringent pollution controls could take a toll on the coal industry, while boosting the market for pollution control devices. One huge coal plant in New Mexico lost a legal battle with the EPA to avoid having to install a more effective type of pollution-control equipment.
But what really has the coal industry “frightened” is cheap natural gas, the result of a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale deposits. But demand for natural gas may soon grow, since more natural gas vehicles are already in the works, and an announcement by President Obama that he’ll expand tax credits for alternative vehicles to include those powered by hydrogen and natural gas.
How Clean is the Clean Energy Standard?
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which would force the largest utilities to meet targets starting in 2015 that by 2035 would ramp up to require 84 percent clean energy—defined as sources that create less greenhouse gases than modern coal plants. If enacted, which analysts rated as unlikely, the law would benefit natural gas, at least initially, but several renewable energy groups endorsed the bill.
However, last month a study led by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold found that switching from coal to gas would lead to only a slight drop in warming by the end of the century, so achieving “substantial reductions in temperatures” compared with use of coal would require “rapid and massive deployment” of very low-emissions energy such as solar and wind.
This fits with an analysis last year from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, whose lead researcher concluded switching to natural gas “would do little to help solve the climate problem.” Such findings led activist Bill McKibben to argue natural gas is not a “bridge fuel,” but rather “a rickety pier extending indefinitely out into a hotter future.”
Meanwhile, plans are under way to expand exports of U.S. coal with new shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest and a “tremendous increase” in capacity at a Louisiana port. At CERAWeek, a major meeting for the oil and gas industry, the most popular discussion about U.S. natural gas is the “prospect of exporting it,” an issue Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the administration is “looking at closely.”
China Puts on the Brakes
The growth of China’s coal production is expected to slow down—part of a general slowing for the country in 2012.
In the annual meeting of China’s parliament, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a lower target for economic growth—7.5 percent, the lowest in seven years—and would shift from an export-focused economy to instead emphasize domestic consumption.
Wen also said the country will “put an end to blind expansion in industries such as solar energy and wind power”—possibly referring to oversupplies of wind turbines and solar panels. China’s wind industry has exploded from six turbine manufacturers in 2004 to more than 100 today, leading to manufacturing capacity that’s larger than the demand and a large number of projects awaiting connections.
China had “imbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable development,” Wen said. The country had missed half its major targets for energy conservation and environmental protection, largely because they “have not transformed the economic development model,” said Zhang Ping, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission.
The government also announced it will create stricter laws for air pollution, and an official said two-thirds of Chinese cities would likely fail to meet the new standard.
Hockey Stick in a Knife-Fight
Climate researcher Michael Mann has been under attack by Virginia’s Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli, who has been trying to force Mann’s former employer, the University of Virginia, to release documents on Mann’s work so he could “determine whether or not fraud had been committed.” But the Virginia Supreme Court turned down Cuccinelli’s request, which the Union of Concerned Scientists called “a victory for science in Virginia.”
Mann has become a lightning rod for his research on ancient climates and for creating the famous “hockey stick” graph showing rising temperatures in recent decades—a tale recounted in his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.
He said scientists are in a tough position, because they’re in a “knife-fight” with climate change skeptics, but scientists “can’t play by the rules of knife-fighting ourselves.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Leaked documents purportedly from the nonprofit Heartland Institute include efforts to cast doubt on climate science. The site DeSmog Blog received the documents from an anonymous informant calling himself “Heartland Insider.”
The Heartland Institute gave mixed responses to the documents, calling them both “stolen” and “fake,” but only specifically calling one document, titled “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” a “total fake.”
Nonetheless Think Progress confirmed that two of the main projects mentioned in the documents are real, including an effort to develop curricula for K-12 education that would cast doubt on climate science.
New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin said the Heritage Institute is using a double standard in being outraged about this leak, while celebrating the “Climategate” leak of emails from researchers.
Climate researcher Judith Curry of Georgia Tech—who has been branded a “heretic” by her colleagues for raising questions such whether there’s actually a consensus on climate change—said one of the most interesting things about the Heartland Institute is that it has been “so effective with so little funds.”
Last month, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, directed by well-known climate skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, announced it will shut because the Danish government cut its funding.
New Budget to Boost “Clean Sources” of Energy
With the announcement of the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 budget, the President called again for an end to $40 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies over the next decade. However The Hill said this is “largely a political statement” because Congress is unlikely to support the end of these tax breaks.
The budget request calls for doubling the share of electricity from “clean sources.” It would increase funding for renewable energy, nuclear power, and technologies to reduce emissions from coal, including a 29 percent increase for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, bringing its budget to $2.33 billion.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators approved plans for a new nuclear power plant for the first time in 30 years, to be built in Georgia. Work is proceeding, with hopes of having the reactors—a new type never used in the U.S.—running by 2016, but the plant is encountering opposition.
The proposed U.S. budget includes no money for the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which gave funding to now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.
Despite the uproar about Solyndra, an audit of the loan guarantee program found that the investments were actually safer than Congress had expected. Nonetheless, the audit recommended changes to loan guarantees to improve management and oversight.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned more recipients of loan guarantees may go bust, but that they have always known there are “inherent risks in backing innovative technologies.”
Feed-In Tariffs’ Fate
Feed-in tariffs and other subsidies for renewable energy are in turmoil as countries rearrange their systems. The U.K. is changing to a dynamic tariff that adjusts as the cost of solar panels falls, to avoid a bubble in installations and ballooning costs for the program.
Germany is expected to cut its solar feed-in tariff—and some analysts said the cuts could be deeper than expected. Two different proposals from the Ministry of the Environment could both hurt the industry; in retaliation, three German states reportedly said they’d block these measures.
The United States has lagged behind Europe and East Asia in implementing feed-in tariffs, but two new places in the U.S. are considering starting such programs: the state of Iowa and the city of Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley.
Weather Trumps Turbines
A headline about a new study in the U.K.’s Daily Mail reading “Wind farms can actually INCREASE climate change…” received a lot of attention, but the Guardian argued the claim has now grown into a myth.
But even if turbines can affect microclimates, a new study suggested powerful hurricanes could topple offshore wind farms planned along the United States’ Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not be circulated next Thursday in observance of the holiday. Look for it again on January 5.
Prices in Europe’s carbon emissions trading scheme have collapsed this year, in part because there were too many allowances in the system starting off, threatening the future of the whole market.
“Without intervention … Europe’s climate policy is over,” one analyst said. Some of Europe’s biggest energy and manufacturing firms also wrote a letter to the European Commission that called for Europe to take “decisive action now” to raise the price of carbon and fix the scheme.
The European Parliament’s environment committee voted in favor of temporarily cutting the number of emissions permits to be issued.
This year, the price of permits has fallen about 50 percent. Emissions allowances are now about 6 euros per ton—a four-year low, and about half what they were when the market began. Denmark, which will take over the presidency of the European Union in 2012, said the current carbon prices are “not sustainable” and vowed to help fix the problem.
Part of the problem is that Europe’s economic crisis is escalating, risking a slump like in the 1930s to which no country will be immune, said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in a speech at the U.S. State Department. Also, a new energy efficiency effort could also cut the number of permits needed, another reason to issue less in the future.
Paving the Way for De-carbonized Energy
The European Commission presented its long-awaited “Energy Roadmap 2050,” aiming to point the way to meet the European Union (EU) goal of cutting emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The report considered various ways of reaching these targets, and concluded that relying heavily on renewables would be no more expensive than boosting nuclear, or fossil fuels along with carbon capture and storage.
A de-carbonized energy system could be cheaper than “business-as-usual,” although de-carbonization would require large up-front spending. The report also said natural gas will be a “critical” fuel during the transition.
The EU soon needs to set renewable energy targets for 2030, said EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.
The European Union moved earlier this year to expand its emissions trading scheme to include flights in and out of Europe, and now the European Court of Justice has backed that law despite protests from the U.S. and others. The new decision, which goes into effect Jan. 1, may trigger a trade war.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency unveiled its first limits on emissions of mercury and several other toxic pollutants from power plants. The limits were 20 years in the making, and cover a variety of toxic compounds including arsenic, nickel, selenium, and cyanide.
The new standard gives companies three options: install systems to scrub their emissions, switch to natural gas, or shut down their plants. Some of the nation’s oldest—and generally dirtiest—coal-fired power plants may be forced to shut down, which could also benefit the climate.
Climategate Investigation Widened
The U.S. Department of Justice is apparently working with law enforcement officials in Britain to investigate who leaked climate researchers’ e-mails.
In the U.K., police raided the home of one climate skeptic blogger and confiscated two of his computers.
Flipping the Switch on Incandescents
A ban on the sale of incandescent light bulbs of 100 watts or more in the U.S. is supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but an emergency spending agreement in Congress removed funds from enforcement of the ban, at least until October 2012. Experts say the lack of enforcement will likely have little effect, since light bulb manufacturers have already retooled and moved on.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
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In Durban, South Africa, the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations opened with a plea from South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, for countries to look beyond national interests. So far, however, the talks have been marked by many of the same divisions that plagued earlier meets.
A coalition of environmental groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists—accused the U.S. of negotiating in bad faith. At the conference, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela stalled on decisions about a Green Climate Fund to pay for clean energy and climate change adaptation in poorer countries.
In response, the European Union (EU) urged a conclusion on the fund, and took the hardest stance it ever has in such negotiations, insisting on stiff conditions for China and developing countries and demanding a road map for moving forward.
Meanwhile, Canada’s environment minister called the country’s decision to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol “one of the biggest blunders” an earlier administration made since they had no intention of meeting the pledge. This led a group of African leaders to plead Canada to reconsider.
A week before the climate talks began, a new collection of 5,000 e-mails from climate researchers surfaced, apparently part of the same set obtained and then leaked in 2009 in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Despite widespread accusations of bias and manipulation of data, the researchers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.
But the new release of the second batch of e-mails led U.S. Rep. Ed Markey to state: “This is clearly an attempt to sabotage the international climate talks for a second time.” Markey called for more intense investigation into how the e-mails were hacked. While U.K. police investigated the apparent crime before, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the police spent little on this effort.
The latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the World Meteorological Organization recorded an unusually large increase in the CO2 level in the air in 2010—a jump of 2.3 parts per million over the year, compared with the average over the preceding decade of 2.0 parts per million each year.
If this trend continued for the rest of the century, the world would warm some 6 degrees Celsius, warned Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA).
However, this forecast is at odds with other warnings the IEA has made, argued Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet—in particular, Birol’s warning that the world has reached the peak of conventional crude oil production, and that high oil prices are hampering economic growth.
Threat of “Oil Armageddon”
Oil prices may spike again, many analysts warned, after France urged many countries to halt Iranian oil imports, and the U.S., Britain and Canada teamed up to apply new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
However, the EU, poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest oil importer, can’t afford to refuse Iranian oil, the Wall Street Journal argued. Likewise, the U.S. had been considering sanctions, CNN reported, but hesitated because of the toll an oil price spike would likely have on the global economy. With relations between Iran and the West quickly worsening, Reuters reports oil consuming nations, hedge funds and refineries are preparing for an “oil armageddon.”
Libya claims Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, and was producing about 1.6 million barrels a day when the production suddenly dropped to near zero in February. Many analysts said it will take two to three years for Libya’s oil production to recover to previous levels, and by year’s end they may only be producing a quarter to a third as much as before.
Even before rebels had taken over Moammar Gadhafi’s compound, oil companies were preparing to return to the country, which they left months before.
So far, though, the price has been up and down, in part because of anticipation of the outcome of a summit this week, which may result in a new round of quantitative easing, which would likely drive down the value of the dollar.
To try to understand how much speculators are driving oil prices, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been looking into “excessive speculation.” Earlier this year, five traders were charged with making $50 million off speculation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a long-time critic of oil speculation, became frustrated with the pace of investigations and leaked the records of many trades.
While dozens were in jail in Washington, D.C., after protests to oppose the construction of another pipeline carrying tar sands products from Canada to the U.S., a New York Times editorial argued against the pipeline because of high greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations. Canadian officials, meanwhile, stepped up lobbying on its behalf.
Producing natural gas from shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing has also been under scrutiny for its greenhouse gas emissions, and now a new study argues Marcellus Shale natural gas has slightly higher emissions than conventional natural gas, but fewer emissions than coal.
Dark Days in America, Brighter Elsewhere
With budget woes, spending cuts, and more spending cuts scheduled to be made over the coming years, it appears renewable energy in the U.S. is entering “dark days,” reported GreenBiz.
But renewables are gaining increasing traction elsewhere. In Brazil, in a large power auction, wind emerged as the cheapest source of electricity, beating out natural gas and hydroelectric power. The contracts could lead to the construction of 1.9 gigawatts of new wind farms.
Japan is expected to pass a renewable energy bill that would introduce a feed-in tariff to make renewables more attractive, and set down in law the government’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent (compared with 1990 levels) by 2020. To cope with the Fukushima disaster, though, Japan has boosted its use of fossil fuels in the short term.
Germany’s national rail company, which is the country’s biggest electricity consumer, is also moving toward renewables, planning to quit fossil fuels by 2050.
The Billionth Car
The future is bright for electric cars, according to a forecast from Pike Research, which said worldwide sales are likely to grow to 5.2 million by 2017, more than 50 times this year’s estimated sales.
However, even then electric cars would make up a tiny fraction of all cars, with more than one billion on the road as of 2010, a new study said. About half of the recent growth in cars has been in China, which has higher efficiency standards than the U.S., but the country is showing little interest in hybrids and electric cars.
Scientists working on climate change have been under scrutiny, with a polar bear researcher being suspended from his job for the U.S. government.
Another researcher came under fire after the “Climategate” leak of e-mails. He was cleared earlier this year in an investigation by his university, and now has been cleared in a second investigation by the National Science Foundation.
Following Obama’s energy speech a week ago, which set out a goal to cut U.S. oil imports by one-third within a decade, the administration unveiled more projects to bolster energy production—both clean and dirty. This included $112 million for solar power, $26 million for advanced hydropower, and lease sales for new coal mines and deepwater oil exploration. Global private investment in clean energy is also on the rise. This is according to a new report from the Cleantech Group, which indicated it reached $2.5 billion for the first quarter of this year, a 50 percent jump compared with the quarter before.
However, efforts to foster renewable energy have a long way to go, said the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its new “Clean Energy Progress Report.” Annual government subsidies for renewables amount to $57 billion, compared with $312 for fossil fuels, according to the IEA’s tally. “More aggressive clean energy policies are required,” the report argued, “including the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and implementation of transparent, predictable and adaptive incentives for cleaner, more efficient energy options.”
Meanwhile, President Obama promised to veto a bill that would handcuff the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and prevent it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Several Republicans tried another tack, proposing amendments to another bill that would have the same effect—but all four amendments failed to pass the Senate.
Could we be Headed for a Double-dip Recession?
A new poll says Americans have become far more concerned about gasoline prices in the past several months than Iraq, Afghanistan, immigration, terrorism and taxes. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said there’s nothing they can do to keep oil below $120 a barrel, and gas prices will continue to rise, according to a Moody’s forecast, while Algeria’s former energy minister said at an oil summit that turmoil in Arab countries will have dramatic effects on energy markets for years to come.
If the turmoil in the region spreads to Saudi Arabia, the country’s oil minister warned, the price of oil could soar. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia it will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],” the minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, told Reuters. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”
Today’s high oil prices are already hampering global economic growth, an IEA official said. In the U.S. as well, high gasoline prices are taking their toll on the U.S. economy, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues the U.S. is heading for a double-dip recession.
Fish Turning Up Radioactive
The fight continued to control the nuclear reactors in Japan, which are still facing the possibility of meltdowns. Authorities intentionally released 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the ocean before some uncontrolled leaks were sealed with a mix of sawdust, newspaper, concrete, and liquid glass. Despite these ongoing troubles, nuclear remains safer than many other energy sources, especially coal, according to an analysis of Europe’s energy sector and its effect on health.
Since the accident, U.K. environmental writer George Monbiot has been widely cited for his argument that Fukushima should actually make us more confident in nuclear power. This week he has stuck to his guns while sparring with Helen Caldicott, a Nobel Prize-winning anti-nuclear activist. Others have had their trust shaken,, however, including the European Union’s energy commissioner, who told Der Spiegel, “Fukushima has made me start to doubt” nuclear power.
The Japanese government is screening its fish, and finding some are highly radioactive—and halfway around the world from Japan, one New York restaurant has taken radiation scanning into its own hands, buying scanners to test incoming fish. Such fears are misplaced, argues risk expert David Ropeik—and fear itself may take a bigger toll on people’s health than radiation from the leaking plants.
The latest round of United Nations climate talks, held in Bangkok, Thailand, got off to a rocky start. As the talks opened, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern, was at an energy conference in New York, where he called for an agreement for developed and developing countries alike, without a “firewall” between them. But at the same time, he called a binding international agreement “unrealistic” and “not doable.” Rather than international agreements, Stern said, “it is the national plans of countries, written into law and regulations, that count and that bind.”
Developed and developing countries have set goals for cutting their emissions over the coming decades—but these don’t go far enough to avoid dangerous climate change, said Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres at the Bangkok meeting.
Didn’t See That Coming
After “Climategate” in late 2009, many climate skeptics launched studies independent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that took a closer look at the temperature record. Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is leading one such effort, which has received a large part of its funding from Koch Industries, known for fighting hard against emissions controls and accused by Greenpeace of funding a “climate denial machine.”
When Muller presented the initial results to a congressional hearing, “Republicans expected Muller to challenge the accepted wisdom,” according to Science. But he told the hearing, “we see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.”
First Things First: IBM will ask its 28,000 suppliers to monitor and disclose their energy use, heat-trapping gas emissions, waste, and recycling. Spread across 90 countries, the suppliers are compelled to install software designed to help firms understand their impact–if they want to continue working with the computing and services giant. “Ultimately, if a supplier cannot be compliant with requirements on the environment and sustainability, we’ll stop doing business with them,” said IBM’s John Paterson.
In Washington, the policy community anticipates in the next week or so the first public draft of a new Senate climate and energy bill. The bill will not surface on Earth Day, April 22, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “We don’t want to mix messages here,” he said, “I’m all for protecting the Earth but this is about energy independence.”
Capping It All off: The New York Times declared “cap-and-trade” dead several weeks ago, only to quietly run a sort of non-correction correction last weekend. The draft Senate bill is expected to create a market in which regulated companies can buy and sell permits to emit heat-trapping gases.
Leaks from the Senate suggest that the bill, written by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Graham, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), would impose limits on the industrial pollution of heat-trapping gases and allow regulated companies to buy and sell emissions permits. The utility sector would initiate the program in 2012, followed by heavy industry in 2016. The Senate bill will treat transportation fuels differently, requiring a “fee” levied after products are refined, and before drivers pump it into their vehicles. This sector-by-sector approach to climate policy has been greeted with some openness from a few Republican lawmakers, including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Would new support offset a loss of support among Democrats angered by President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to expand offshore oil exploration?
When the troika introduces the bill, responsibility for moving it into the Senate goes to Majority Leaders Harry Reid. “His challenge could not be tougher,” writes Darren Samuelsohn in ClimateWire. Reid will try to navigate the bill to the Senate floor at the same time he’s juggling a new Supreme Court nomination, financial reform, and a rough re-election campaign. Graham and Kerry modestly disagreed on the possible implications for the climate bill of the Supreme Court confirmation process.
The Senate bill will reportedly also contain a provision that eliminates both the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas regulations, and state and regional climate programs. That would halt development of programs including the Western Climate Initiative. The WCI this week previewed a new analysis that projects an average price of about $33 to emit a ton of carbon dioxide in 2020. States could continue programs that improve energy efficiency or set renewable energy standards.
Down-to-Earth Business: Is most discernable “movement” in the environmental arena to be found this year in the private sector? Reuters finds supporting evidence. The still-tough economic climate encourages firms to cut waste and inefficiency, and sustainability offers a common approach. Strained consumer budgets discourage spending on premium “clean” products. (The consumers who are interested in shelling out a little bit more for a greener product might note that the EPA and Department of Energy’s Energy Star label just became stricter.) The trend calls to mind a catch-phrase of Gregory Unruh, a corporate sustainability expert affiliated with the Thunderbird School of Global Management: “Embed it and forget it.” He writes in his new book, Earth, Inc.: “We’ll reach the sustainability destination when we embed the principles that account for the biosphere’s sustainability to business practice in profitable ways” [pdf introduction].
Energy efficiency is the fastest path to sustainability for many companies, and by extension the least intrusive way for policymakers to push climate-and-energy goals forward. This week Nicholas Institute Senior Policy Associate Etan Gumerman co-authored an ambitious, widely received study with Professor Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech that concludes smart policy should bring vast energy and financial savings. The modeling study shows that a suite of nine policies could result in $41 billion in energy bill savings, the creation of 320,000 new jobs, and a water savings of 8.6 billion gallons in 2020. “We looked at how these policies might interact, not just single programs,” Gumerman said. “The interplay between policies compounds the savings. And it’s all cost-effective. On average, each dollar invested in energy efficiency over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits.” The study was picked up by numerous major and trade media outlets across the country, and is available here.
Universities are stepping up their training of America’s future workforce. Engineering students increasingly seek programs that specialize in sustainability, drawn by renewed interest in industry and pushed by current and expected new government policies. US News and World Report writes, “Today’s engineering students are reacting to having grown up in environmentally ‘perilous times.’” [Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering includes an environmental engineering initiative as one of its four academic pillars.]
In the Clear: A panel dismissed charges of scientific fraud and other accusations levied against researchers affiliated with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Ron Oxburgh, an earth scientist, former defense adviser, and former Shell chairman, and colleagues pinged the climatologists for not consulting closely with top statisticians when they conduct their statistics-driven analysis of temperature records and proxy records. A statistician on the review panel said it was unlikely statistical errors undermine the basic science.
Cat Exits Open Bag: The Guardian publishes a memo detailing U.S. communications strategy in international climate talks. The document was found “on a European hotel computer and passed to the Guardian,” which doesn’t offer much of a clue for pinpointing who might have left it there. At the top of the list: “Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change.”
Genie Exits Bottle:A volcanic eruption in Iceland has grounded aircraft in the U.K. and Europe, but early reports suggest it’s too small to have a noticeable short-term cooling effect globally. Sulfate aerosols released in volcanic explosions tend to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. One controversial idea to manage climate change is to mimic eruptions by spraying aerosols into the high atmosphere from aircraft. For more on this and other “geoengineering” ideas, see (both!) of two great new books on the topic, Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch of Science, and How to Cool the Planet, by Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone. I happily “blurbed” the former, and reviewed the latter recently in BusinessWeek.
Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are making previously obscure monthly data dumps from NOAA and NASA into regular conversation pieces among observers to the climate arena. The March numbers came out this week and zipped across blogs and news sites:
The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for March 2010 was the warmest on record at 13.5 deg C (56.3 deg F), which is 0.77 deg C (1.39 deg F) above the 20th century average of 12.7 deg C (54.9 deg F). This was also the 34th consecutive March with global land and ocean temperatures above the 20th century average.
It’s worth asking, particularly as Earth Day queues up next week, will climate data eventually make it big as an economic indicator?
Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?: For a couple of weeks, I’ve had a tiny bee in my bonnet along these lines and I finally figured out why. It’s this sentence in the Washington Post review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar (I mentioned this in this space two weeks ago). Here:
The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. [Emphasis added]
Initially I was just hung up on how someone hoping to come across as an informed person, or who is supposed to be an informed person, could string together these words with a straight face. The larger problem is that this is just one signal–anecdotally reinforced elsewhere–that many smart, educated, successful people don’t know that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere.
If Earth Day has any singular goal at all, and I’ve never been convinced, it should be this: Make the Keeling curve more famous. Deutsch Bank recently bought a huge billboard across the street from Madison Square Garden in New York City. It has a running tally of the tons of carbon dioxide humans have put into the atmosphere, in the spirit of the famous National Debt Clock. But what would happen if instead it were the Keeling Curve? With other Keeling Curves in Times Square, at the New York Stock Exchange, in Parisian art installations, projected on clouds on Earth Day like the Bat signal. What do the neuroeconomists and behaviorists say about this? Is there a Keeling Curve app yet for the iPad?
What do you think?
Graph courtesy Scripps Institution
Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.
First Things First: President Barack Obama last week shifted the date he will visit the Copenhagen climate talks from Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, the last and most consequential day. Three days into the 15th U.N.-sponsored Conference of Parties, this otherwise mundane fact carries the most symbolism. Whatever happens, whatever has already been settled or is left to do, the baseline expectation is that – whatever it is – the result is unlikely to be an embarrassment to the President of the United States.
The Thanksgiving holiday and then, more locally, the flu have kept this observer reluctantly quiet during two of the most consequential weeks in “climate history,” which have seen the unauthorized release of private e-mails from climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s formal declaration of heat-trapping gases as pollutants.
Copenhagen Briefing, in Brief: COP talks tend to generate fleeting controversy and misunderstanding as negotiators engage each other. This 15th meeting is no exception. London’s Guardian reported a day after the opening ceremonies of the existence of a secret “Danish text” agreement, which would marginalize the United Nations and impose unacceptable requirements on poor nations most vulnerable to change. This is likely a souped-up version of what’s been occurring all year—punching up whatever news is out there, because there’s so little. As ExxonMobil’s Brian Flannery told Grist in the Danish capital, “I’m trying hard to understand what is happening, as I think everyone is… Because it’s very hard to know what is actually happening here.” This morning, Tuvalu walked out of the negotiations in protest over the perceived weakness of COP-15’s goals. Talks resumed in the afternoon.
What’s certain are the main issues that nations are sparring over: emissions goals and timelines; forestry; technology transfer; and adaptation. Distance among parties on emissions drove the talks toward a political agreement, rather than a treaty, weeks before talks began. That said, an upbeat news boomlet came in late November and December when the U.S. announced that it would propose 17 percent emissions reductions (below 2005 levels) in 2020 and China said it would reduced its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent in that time. Forestry may be the most promising area, even if recent studies have questioned the amount of global warming attributable to deforestation. This area of policy has advanced rapidly in the last decade, and Nicholas Institute colleagues are thought-leaders in the field. The Nicholas Institute and Nicholas School are sending a delegation of 18 people to Copenhagen. They will record their daily thoughts and observations at a new blog, Good COP/Bad COP: Visit early and often.
“Technology transfer” is a grab-bag of issues that includes everything from intellectual property protections for U.S. inventors to trade. Nations are also pairing off to help ease trade issues. The U.S. and India secured clean-tech partnerships during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit [pdf]. China and the Obama administration continue talks on these matters.
“Endangerment Is My Middle Name”: Scientists have understood that carbon dioxide traps heat since 1859. (The 150th anniversary of John Tyndall’s famous experiment was this year.) Carbon dioxide has legally been a pollutant in the U.S. since Monday, an event Tyndall couldn’t have imagined. That’s when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the agency’s final “endangerment finding,” a legal hurdle that, now overcome, enables the U.S. to regulate greenhouse gases from large cars, factories, and utilities. Colleagues’ policy study [full pdf] earlier this year found that only a small percentage of U.S. firms might be regulated under new programs.
This afternoon, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman released a new framework for the climate change legislation they expect to introduce in coming weeks. The four-page document avoids no major issue that senators will have to wrangle if they are to pass legislation next year.
What We Know. What to Do?: If ever a topical item recommended reading beyond one’s regular news and dispassionate consideration it is the release of ten years worth of University of East Anglia climate scientists’ e-mails. In mid-November an unknown hacker or hackers uploaded more than 1,000 e-mails on to a public server in Russia. A couple of dozen e-mails raise integrity questions about scientists’ discussion of a peer-reviewed journal and the public release of their data. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see the release of such a wide latent interest in paleodendrology and a great opportunity for many people to update themselves on the state of climate science.
Two of the most helpful pieces about the e-mails–quickly dubbed “climategate” by whatever computer algorithm instantaneously adds “-gate” to the end of key words in American public controversies—are Columbia University geochemist Peter Kelemen’s Popular Mechanics take and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s report.
Last night, CNN’s Larry King hosted two garden-variety conservative men and two garden-variety liberal women simulating an argument on various issues, including the UEA e-mails. The guests groped for intelligible things to say before moving on to analysis of Sarah Palin’s book tour. This segment was one of many low-points in the UEA saga, along with CNN’s titling of a new topical series, “Climate Change: Trick or Truth.”
Climate change is neither trick nor truth. It is the sum of observed changes in the Earth system, analysis of further risks, understanding of past climate behavior, and questions of ongoing research. The volume of scientific material is vast, following independent lines of evidence; the leading solutions are expensive or complicated or both; the pace and scale of predicted effects are uncertain, both physically and economically; the moral questions of international and intergenerational equity are searing. Even right now, observed changes can trip up those living through it. The reality of human-induced climate change is a different matter than the possible lapses in scientific integrity within the e-mail conversations. The University of East Anglia has launched an investigation on that matter.
Earth system science, with neuroscience and genomics, is the most exciting, influential, and complicated endeavor researchers are working on these days. And yet in a way it’s the easiest part of the larger climate change debate to tackle: What to do is proving more difficult than discovery. The robustness of scientific understanding of manmade climate change appears to have prevented policymakers from getting distracted by the procedural and integrity questions raised within the scientific community by the UEA e-mails. Here’s one quick take on “what we know”
Certain atmospheric gases, notably carbon dioxide, absorb heat, the way an antenna absorbs radio waves or eyes absorb white light. Humans are transforming underground carbon minerals, fuels, into atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing its volume by about a third in 150 years. More gas traps more energy. More energy raises global temperatures. Higher temperatures melt ice, which raises sea levels and lowers the Earth’s reflectivity (consequently admitting more energy). As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, they become more acidic, creating a threat to many living things and ecosystems. Climate historian Spencer Weart told the New York Times: “The physics of the greenhouse effect is so basic that instead of asking whether it would happen, it makes more sense to ask what on earth could make it not happen. So far, nobody has been able to come up with anything plausible in that line.”
Scientists predict climate impacts and attribute observed changes to human actions with varying levels of confidence. The tree ring studies at the core of the UEA e-mail debate have already been picked over for a decade and are not considered front-and-center evidence for warming. The temperature studies are quite important; that’s why the raw data has been studied at two other research centers, too, with compatible results. Leading clmatologists have recommended, some forcefully, that global carbon emissions should peak in 2015.
How we respond to this information is still, and is likely to always be, a work in progress. As Obama said today at the Nobel ceremony, “There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement — all of which will fuel more conflict for decades.”