The documents … they are … Alive! Alive!

January 28, 2010

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: With the electorate angry and frustrated, President Obama delivered a State of the Union address last night that articulated his goals for, among other things, modernizing the U.S. energy system and infrastructure, and addressing climate change. The president called for “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America,” including nuclear power. New Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the Republican response, imploring the nation that, “Advances in technology can unleash more natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, and alternative energy to lower your utility bills.”

The speech punctuated a week where everything in the climate-and-energy space appeared to be in motion. The troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressed ahead developing their legislation. Kerry shouted down the New York Times for an article suggesting the legislators had scaled back their goals. Graham told the Clean Energy, Jobs and Security Forum that “There will never be 60 votes for climate change legislation as it exists today. And it would be a shame if that is the end of the story.” Todd Wooten, director of the Nicholas Institute’s Southeast Climate Resources Center, spoke on a climate, security, and agriculture panel with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

The BASIC countries–Brazil, South Africa, India, and China–met this week in advance of the Jan. 31 Copenhagen Accord soft deadline for submitting descriptions of their greenhouse gas  mitigation actions to the UNFCC. They also called on developed nations to distribute their $10 billion in pledged adaptation aid to poor countries.

Business as Usual?: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will issue interpretive guidance to help companies evaluate in disclosure documents the risks and opportunities they face from climate legislation, treaties, and other developments–including potential global change itself. The move comes the same week that the CEOs of 83 companies sent a letter to Obama asking him to push for major legislation.

The five commissioners voted along party lines. Their statements provide an interesting snapshot of competing thought on how our venerable institutions are responding to climate risk (Schapiro; Casey; Walter; Paredes; Aguilar). Chairman Mary Schapiro emphasized that the guidance is neither commentary on the vast topic “climate change” nor a set of new rules for businesses to follow. Rather, the rules should help bring consistency to reporting on an emerging public concern. Dissenting commissioners (Casey and Paredes) questioned assigning SEC resources to the fruits of social and environmental advocacy when investors and markets require so much attention elsewhere.

These competing views encapsulate Washington’s two minds on the issues: One view, going forward and in the long term, the U.S. can not assume without risk that the relative climate stability it has enjoyed for 233 years will continue for, say, another 233 years; and a second view, that existing regulations cover what’s needed for climate disclosure, and the SEC should attend to immediate matters. (The actual guidance has not yet been published.)

Global Uncertainty: The SEC refrained from comment on climate change itself, or came close. Commissioner Kathleen Casey added this sentence to her critique of the interpretive guidance: “This guidance is premature at best, as the science surrounding global warming remains far from settled.” [Emphasis added.] Certainly, that’s an easy conclusion to come to, looking at headlines. A new poll shows that Americans concern about climate change has dropped 14 points, to 57 percent, since 2008. It also shows that people trust their local weather forecasters more than traditional reporting outlets (although weather forecasters disproportionately resist global warming). Casey isn’t alone. Some legislators vocalized discomfort with Obama’s mention of climate science in his address. China’s top climate negotiator said he is unready to attribute observed warming to human activity.

IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri has come under fire for the body’s mistaken prediction that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, and for potential business conflicts with his IPCC work. The highest-profile all for his resignation came from the German newsmagazine Spiegel, where Richard Tol, Roger Pielke Jr, and Hans von Storch write, “Astoundingly, it appears that Pachauri has not broken any rules for the simple reason that there is no code of conduct governing conflicts of interest for IPCC participants and leaders.” Pachauri has defended himself and vowed to stay put. The IPCC has responded aggressively to [pdf] a Sunday Times (U.K.) article about climate change and extreme weather events.

Don’t Forget to Check Your Work: Last week, a reader wrote in for more information about which 2007 IPCC predictions have proven to be too modest. One of the sources I suggested as reference was the UNEP’s Climate Change Science Compendium 2009, a review of the professional literature for policymakers in advance of the Copenhagen meeting. The next day, thinking about the recently exposed IPCC error, I started checking through the footnotes. In the opening few pages of my hard copy, there’s a reproduction of the famous “hockey stick” graph, showing proxy evidence for temperature and CO2 over the last 1,000 years or so. I saw the reference, to “Hanno 2009,” and looked it up in the bibliography, but it wasn’t there. Another boneheaded fact-checking mistake, I thought. It’s actually worse than that. “Hanno 2009″ isn’t a peer-reviewed journal article at all but a Wikipedia entry (!). Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit.org had found it last September and written about it here.

The Himalayan 2035 error returned to the conversation the phrase “gray literature” — science writing that has not been peer-reviewed and published in professional journals. But I was surprised and dismayed to see the UNEP rely on a source that wouldn’t pass muster in a descent high school composition class — and then not share the source.

The UNEP in October deleted the “Hanno 2009″ graph and replaced it with a graph from this peer-reviewed paper, and a note that says, in part, “UNEP welcomes further constructive comments so that the report evolves as a living document containing the latest peer-reviewed science.” Would I recommend the report again? Probably, keeping in mind that everything said on the topic is one or another kind of “living document.” If something else smells fishy, follow the notes. The ultimate value in these review reports isn’t the actual assembled narrative but in the bibliography of primary research papers. You just have to have time and patience to fall down the rabbit hole, which few people have. And there’s always plenty of other interesting material around to consider. Here’s the Wikipedia page with a history of Hanno 2009, clearly written by someone angry about the matter.

So, is the science unsettled? There are a lot of things we’d like to know better (Nature, sub. req.). But when it comes down to atmospheric physics, it sure seems like a lot of smart people have been working hard and coming up with the same answers for quite some time now. What to do about it is currently up to the Senate, in part. If you have any thoughts feel free to contribute to the comments section or e-mail since Climate Post is a living document.

About the Future: There’s a tendency among probably all the interest-group silos in Washington, whichever one you choose, to think that policymakers, by not doing specifically what it is advocates want, are ruining the future. There’s also a tendency to lose track of other policy issues given the focus on one’s own. With that in mind, consider David Broder’s Washington Post op-ed this morning about the U.S.’s fiscal health, upon which so many of these silo’ed policy discussions depend on for resolution.

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.