The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The latest round of climate talks began Feb. 8 in Geneva, where representatives of 190 or so countries have their work cut out for them: streamlining a 37-page draft text of an international agreement covering more than 100 issues, each with multiple options and sub-options, so that a full negotiating text is ready by May as a basis for further negotiations in June and ratification at a summit in Paris in December. The draft text reflects a rich country-developing country divide and is “stuffed with options that reflect conflicting interests and demands on many fundamental points,” reported the Associated Foreign Press in the Gulf Times.

With both global Earth surface and global sea surface temperatures reaching record levels in 2014, pressure to reach a final climate accord is intense.

At the outset of the 6-day conference, the only negotiation period scheduled before delivery of national emissions reductions plans at the end of May, European Union negotiator Elena Bardram acknowledged that countries’ Paris targets are unlikely to keep global temperature rise below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers the tipping point for dangerous climate change.

“We are concerned the targets set in Paris may fall short of what is required by science, that it will not be exactly what is required to remain within the 2 degrees,” she said in a United Nations press conference webcast. “By the Paris conference, we need to have a very clear understanding of how well on track we are with keeping global temperature increase within the two degree centigrade limit,” she said. “We have to know how much is on the table and what more needs to be done, should that be the case.”

All major economies must declare their emissions targets by the end of March, and the European Union is wasting no time in its efforts to make its members fall into line. Reuters reported that it will exert “maximum pressure” to extract pledges “by June at the latest.”

But developed country targets are not the only issue. Other sticking points are whether developing countries should make their own carbon-reduction pledges, whether industrial superpowers should compensate these countries for climate change-related losses and damage, and how pledges of financial support to developing countries should be made good.

Days before the latest talks got under way, a group of CEOs called for the Paris deal to include a goal to reduce global emissions to net zero—no more than Earth can absorb—by 2050.

Final Keystone Legislation Headed to President’s Desk

By a 270–152 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed final legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the project that during seven years of administrative review overseen by the State Department has morphed into a fight about climate change. The president has 10 days once the bill reaches his deck to issue a promised veto.

Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, the architect of the Keystone XL bill, acknowledged that Republicans lack the votes to overcome a veto but said that Keystone measures could be added to other legislation that have bipartisan support.

The bill endorsed changes made by the Senate—that climate change was not a hoax and that oil sands should no longer be exempt from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The President has said he would approve the pipeline only if it does not significantly increase the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the State Department to revisit its conclusion that the project’s impact on those emissions was negligible—a conclusion that the EPA says may no longer hold given the implications of lowered oil prices for oil sands development.

National Security Strategy Report Highlights Threat of Climate Change

Among the eight top strategic risks to the United States identified in President Obama’s National Security Strategy report to Congress is climate change. The report, issued Feb. 6, singles out the phenomenon as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water” with “present day” effects being felt “from the Arctic to the Midwest.”

The report echoes many of the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change poses a national security risk, and it alludes to the economic costs of climate change, suggesting that delaying emissions reductions is more expensive than transitioning to low-carbon energy sources.

Although the administration’s last national security strategy, released in 2010, recognized the threat of climate change to U.S. interests, the new report puts global warming “front and center,” according to the National Journal.

The strategy draws attention to the U.S. commitment to reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to developing “an ambitious new global climate change agreement.”

A White House fact sheet on the report says that the United States will advance its own security and that of allies and partners in part by “confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.”

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.

Climate Change Risks, Impacts Focus of Reports

On November 6, 2014, in Uncategorized, by timprofeta
The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report warning that greenhouse gas levels are at the highest they have been in 800,000 years.

“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within the 2C of warming closes,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “To keep a good chance of staying below the 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, and falling to zero or below by 2100.”

To have a 66 percent chance of limiting total average warming to the U.N.-set threshold of less than 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels, the world’s population can emit no more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide. But we’ve already emitted more than half that much.

The report includes conclusions of three previous IPCC reports on the science, impacts of climate change and on ways to address it.

One key finding: It’s “extremely likely” that humans are contributing to climate change—mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. There is evidence—through sea-level rise, shrinking glaciers, decreasing snow and ice cover and warmer oceans—that human-caused climate change is happening now.

The report indicates that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” In fact, if we stick to our current path, we could see 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

The report is timed just ahead of international negotiations in Lima, Peru, set to take place in December and intended to establish parameters for an emissions reduction agreement that negotiators may sign in Paris next year.

This piggy backs on another recent report, Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015, provides comparable risk data for 198 countries across 26 climate-related issues. Echoing studies by groups such as the Pentagon, the report finds climate change and food insecurity could lead to increased civil unrest and violence in 32 countries assessed in the next 30 years. The countries include Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Haiti, Ethiopia and the Philippines. All 32 depend on agriculture; 65 percent of their combined working population are employed in farming.

“I think the most surprising thing [the new data shows] is how closely linked food security and climate change are,” said James Allan, associate director of global analytics firm Maplecroft. “We were not expecting this level of linkage.”

New Cause for Arctic Warming?

A new mechanism may be a large contributor to warming in the Arctic according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at a long-wavelength region of the electromagnetic spectrum called far infrared.

“Our research found that non-frozen surfaces are poor emitters compared to frozen surfaces,” said lead author Daniel Feldman. “And this discrepancy has a much bigger impact on the polar climate than today’s models indicate. Based on our findings, we recommend that more efforts be made to measure far-infrared surface emissivity. These measurements will help climate models better simulate the effects of this phenomenon on the Earth’s climate.”

Through their simulations, researchers revealed that far-infrared surface emissions have the biggest impact on the climates of arid high-latitude and high-altitude regions. In the Arctic, open oceans were found to hold more far-infrared energy than sea ice, resulting in warmer oceans, melting sea ice and a 2-degree Celsius increase in the polar climate.

The study’s release follows a prediction by one of the leading authorities on the physics of the northern seas who claims the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free by the year 2020.

White House Releases Federal Agency Climate Plans

The White House released a series of reports documenting 38 federal agencies’ vulnerabilities to climate change and their plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, save energy, cut waste and save taxpayer dollars.

“Under President Obama’s leadership, federal agencies have already made significant progress in cutting carbon pollution, improving energy efficiency, and preparing for the impacts of climate change,” said Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “These agency climate plans underscore the administration’s commitment to leading by example throughout the federal government so we can leave behind a planet that is not polluted and damaged and protect our ability to provide the vital services American communities depend on.”

Among some of the findings by agency:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates an increase by 2050 of up to 100 percent in the number of acres annually burned by wildfires.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) not only sees rising sea levels and extreme storms as a major risk but believes that climate change could hinder its ability to get to space. It writes that “Many agency assets—66 percent of assets when measured by replacement value—are within 16 feet of mean sea level and located along America’s coasts, where sea level rise and increased frequency and intensity of high water levels associated with storms are expected.”
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines risks that include more frequent or worse extreme heat events—one weather-related cause of death in the United States.

The reports stem from a five-year process that began with an executive order by President Obama in 2009. The order called on the federal government to reduce its emissions and become more energy efficient and sustainable. According to separate documents, measures to fulfill the order have resulted in a 17 percent decrease in emissions by the federal government since Obama came into office.

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.

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: “The absence of an actual bill” is one impediment to the Senate taking up climate legislation, the Hill reported earlier this week. The climate leadership troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continue to work behind the scenes to steer the many interests toward a common framework. Key business leaders and allied politicians are reportedly encouraged by movement away from the comprehensive approach that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The oil industry, which found the House bill rather expensive, is listening cautiously to a policy that would require them to pay a “carbon fee” rather than buy into an economy-wide fix. President Barack Obama met with 14 senators for more than an hour Tuesday to talk about their shared goals for viable climate legislation, despite a lack of agreement on details or White House demands.

Graham has threatened to walk away from climate (and immigration) legislation if the Democratic majority passes health care reform through a process called “reconciliation,” which circumambulates typical Senate procedure [CongressDaily, sub. req.].

Two “actual bills” would slow or kill the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Two West Virginia Democrats, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, have co-authored a bill that would freeze the agency’s move for at least two years. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a bill that would undo the EPA’s ruling that greenhouse gas emissions pose public harm.

The international negotiation process stumbles forward, toward its year-end COP-16 meeting in cheery Cancun, Mexico. Please do check out the, uh, planned agenda, participants, and guiding documents, here. India and China this week formally signed up for the Copenhagen Accord, the non-binding, vague document to emerge from the Copenhagen COP-15 meeting in December. The developing giants agreed to be “listed” among the Accord countries, rather than “associated” with them, a lesser affiliation reflecting the current difficulties and confusion.

Not Dead Yet: If there’s an enduring legislative metaphor from 20th century cinema, it’s the classic moment from the absurd comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when a man wheels his cart through a Plague-stricken town, telling residents to “Bring out your dead!” The newest body on the cart suddenly exclaims, “I’m not dead yet,” to which he’s told, “You’ll be stone dead in a moment.” The farce ends when the near-deceased is knocked over the head with a club.

In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, with an election approaching, with health care reform absorbing the Senate, and financial and immigration reform not far behind, conventional wisdom holds that climate legislation in the Senate this year is analogously “not dead yet.” (Disclaimer: The conventional wisdom says a lot of things.) The Chicago Tribune documents the rise of climate-science skepticism in the GOP. Read the story from the bottom-up, and you’ll learn that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recently chatted with his new colleagues Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) about their climate bill, which would limit national emissions, compel big polluters to purchase credits for each ton they’re allowed to emit, and dispatch all the proceeds back to consumers.

The Nicholas Institute this week released a modeling study of Cantwell and Collins’ CLEAR Act. Senior Research Economist Eric Williams compares results to the Energy Information Administration’s analysis of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The synopsis: The Cantwell bill’s cost to emit a ton of carbon grows from $21 in 2012 to $55 in 2030, a 5.5 percent annual rise. Market demand for carbon credits pushes the price to the maximum allowed under the legislation—called a “price ceiling”—in every year of the program. Net greenhouse gas emissions, including a companion greenhouse gas-reduction program, might result by 2030 in a 16 percent to 19 percent drop below 2005 levels, far short of Cantwell’s target. That’s compared to EIA’s prediction of a 34 percent net drop under the (now politically dead) House climate bill.

We Have Met the Emitter, and He Is Us: Everything about climate change is hard. This week’s reminder came from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published an analysis of national responsibility for emissions based on trade, rather than emissions within borders. Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science conclude that goods and services traded internationally account for nearly a quarter of industrial carbon emissions. Given the amount of manufacturing in and exporting from China, it’s no surprise that its trade partners are “responsible” for nearly as high a percentage of emissions from the world’s largest national polluter.

Oh, Scientific Community… We Know You’re TryingNever underestimate the incompatibility of traditional media and scientific discourse. The Washington Post this morning ran a slim article on an inside page that deserves full quotation by headline and lede:

Is it fair to introduce to readers an ambitious new oversight project by saying what it will not do? Isn’t that a little bit like headlining the article, “Scientists Too Dim to Focus Review on What You and I Know the IPCC’s Problem Is”? It’s not that this is a particularly egregious article—it’s not like it’s the post-Murdoch-takeover Wall Street Journal‘s news page—but what would be so terrible if conventional journalists added in more explanation into their stories? Regular Post readers are likelier to know that the Himalayas will still be there in 2036 than they are to know just how well-understood the basics of climate change are. If you posit the latter, this headline and lede are less than coherent.

Scientists and science writers have begun to fight back against the misinformation and disinformation campaigns against them. But they’re still bleeding. A new Gallop poll shows that half of Americans think climate change is overblown—48 percent, up from 41 percent last year.  Recent work by the authors of last year’s Six Americas study, shows that the number of respondents who are “dismissive” of climate change is has jumped from 7 percent to 16 percent since 2008.

Adaptation, Already in Progress: From Malawi comes this horrifying story of how extreme meteorological patterns can take individual lives. Unusually heavy rain on a house of unbaked mud brick caused a roof collapse that killed a mother, father, and two children in Lilongwe. A Malawi government report to the UN documented that in the last 20 years there have been enough droughts and floods to “clearly show that there are large temporal and spatial variables in the occurrence of climate-related disasters and calamities.”

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, a planning director has the difficult political task of corralling 16 cities and counties into a discussion of adaptation to rising sea levels, when many constituents posit that climate change risk assessments are wrong, made-up, or overblown.

Problem Solved!: The Boston Globe takes up the “competitive conundrum” of clean energy technologies. That’s a snazzy way of saying that new technologies are more expensive than infrastructure from the last century, such as coal, oil, gas, and nuclear. Without a cost breakthrough—either in the form of a scalable energy invention or a functioning government policy—the 21st century energy economy can’t get started.

I can’t help but wonder if the wrong companies are on the case. Shouldn’t Starbucks (which more than doubled the price of coffee), Apple (whose iPod delivers a tenth the sound quality of analog music at four times the cost), and AT&T (more dropped calls) get to work on making expensive-but-clean tech a style-driven phenomenon? How do you put lipstick on an electron?

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.

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Snow Is Unequivocal

On February 11, 2010, in Uncategorized, by Eric Roston

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: Attention turned this week to the Mid-Atlantic snowstorms and how to understand (and misunderstand) them, and also to how the climate science community—namely the IPCC—might prevent mistakes in process and print that have harmed its reputation in recent months.

Three feet of snow have disabled the capital region. The federal government has been closed all week and still is today, Thursday. The political world is still shoveling it out (literally). This leaves two stories of consequence in the week’s spotlight—ones that always lurk in the background: How hard it is to communicate advanced climate science to policymakers and the public, and how hard it is to communicate basic climate science to policymakers and the public.

Eyes + Snow = Science: Scientific controversies and errors are increasingly giving political cover to policymakers who would rather not deal with the issue, for any available reason. And the snow has reminded everyone that climate is easy enough to dismiss even without recent black eyes to the scientific community.

Political culture generally won’t bear a chain of causality longer than two links. That’s why so much opportunistic rhetoric this week focused on either of these chains: Global warming equals no snow; or snow equals no global warming. Much of the country finds it politically expedient to anthropomorphize climate science into a certain familiar persona and then beat it like it’s a piñata. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wrote over Twitter, “It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle.'” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) built an ice castle that he described as the former vice president’s new home. That’s a fine rhetorical approach for an audience that doesn’t know or care that climate change has nothing to do with Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh ridiculed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for announcing its new information service, Climate.gov, over teleconference rather than a live press conference, due to snow.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the energy committee, observed that the snow makes climate legislation more difficult politically.

In reality, climate change has a causality chain not of, say, two links but of n variables, where n=…  oh, you get the point. And the warming, famously, is unequivocal.

What Comes Down Must Have Gone up: Warmer air holds more moisture. When the temperature drops below freezing, this increased moisture will produce more snow—in this case more than the region has ever recorded. Time‘s Bryan Walsh turns in a concise review. Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC caused a stir by talking about the snow and global warming in the same broadcast. The New York Times makes sure in a lead to reinforce the myth of “two sides” in the climate debate. For thoughtful explorations of the possible relationship between the historic snowstorms and global warming, check out Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog post, “Heavy snowfall in a warming world,” or the Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang.

One space to watch is Climate.gov, the NOAA-led initiative to provide various levels of information and responsiveness to Americans’ questions about global warming.

And not that it matters for anything but the box scores, January was the third hottest month globally in 32 years of satellite monitoring.

Opening the Book on ‘ClimateGate’: The Guardian has undertaken an important exercise, publishing a 30,000-word “manuscript” about the pilfered University of East Anglia climate e-mails. The publication leaves the matter an open book, inviting readers to contribute their own observations and insights. More on this initiative once I’ve finished reading it.

New Paneling?: The IPCC was created before the World Wide Web opened vast sources of scientific material to the public. It’s older than the post-cold war era. University of East Anglia professor Mike Hulme, a past IPCC participant, writes in Nature (sub. req.), “It is not feasible for one panel under sole ownership— that of the world’s governments, but operating under the delegated management of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — to deliver an exhaustive ‘integrated’ assessment of all relevant climate-change knowledge.”

Critics of every persuasion are suggesting how the IPCC should prevent errors large and small, published and procedural, in its fifth assessment report. A collection of opinions in Nature recommend breaking the monolithic United Nations-sponsored edifice into three panels producing shorter, more regular reports; creating an organization akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct transparent scientific, regional, and policy assessments; protecting the layers of review in the current system; and opening the process up to Wikipedia-like community gardening.

Joe Romm of ClimateProgress.org likes to hold feet to the fire. He provides a rather thorough roasting of this New York Times effort to explain the IPCC’s woes.

Cryogenic Politics: The momentum for meaningful climate policy that grew for two years before Copenhagen has come largely to a halt domestically and internationally. The Center for Public Integrity’s Marianne Lavelle continues to track the scale of lobbying efforts in the climate arena. With the president’s original approach to climate legislation flailing, opponents are turning attention elsewhere. Lavelle finds “overt and covert” support for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution against EPA regulation of heat-trapping gases. The piece documents some activities of the farm, small business, and utility sectors.

The climate backlash continues in the states. California conservatives are pushing for a November referendum on the state’s first-in-the-nation climate law. Advocates have raised about $600,000 to pay staff to gather signatures. Gov. Jan Brewer of neighboring Arizona issued an executive order to drop her state’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative. In Utah, the House Natural Resources Committee last week approved a resolution that states, “[C]limate alarmists’ carbon dioxide-related global warming hypothesis is unable to account for the current downturn in global temperatures.” New York University’s Tyler Volk tried to persuade legislators there to follow the carbon.

The vocabulary of the international policy conversation is changing. “Legally Binding? It’s So 2009” boasts a ClimateWire story published at NYTimes.com. Negotiators surveyed by the news service suggest that more than a legally binding treaty what the community of nations needs to see is successful and demonstrable actions at home to curb pollution. Trevor Houser of the Peterson Institute for International Economics made the rounds this week with an analysis of nations’ commitments under the Copenhagen Accord.

It’s a Washington truism that if a campaign’s message doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, it will lose. No one has ever managed to reduce global warming, let alone what to do about it, to a successful bumper sticker. And the archipelago of groups that self-identifies as the environmental movement is urged from friendly quarters to re-examine its path forward. Longtime environmental leader Gus Speth delivered the John H. Chaffee Memorial Lecture in January, saying, “The world needs a new environmentalism in America… America has run a 40-year experiment on whether mainstream environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in.”

Trick Question, Tricky Answers: Last week I posed a query that I then thought about rigorously this weekend while shoveling about 1,000 cubic feet of snow off the driveway and street:  “Have you personally experienced global warming? And how do you know that, exactly?”

The scientifically appropriate answer to first question is, “No.” It makes about as much sense as asking a much-talked-about rookie major league baseball player after a game if he or anyone can say with certainty that his pop fly to deep right field is a reliable index of his future 20-season career batting average.

On the other hand is the increasingly accepted argument, glibly paraphrased, “But come on.” Winter precipitation of increased intensity is predicted for this region. You evaluate the evidence as deeply as you think necessary, or have time for, and make the call.

A few readers did make the call. Alex Smith, who works for Radio Ecoshock in Vancouver, wrote in, “Here in Vancouver, Canada, we have a convoy of trucks hauling snow from the Coastal mountains to our local ski hill for the ‘green’ 2010 Winter Olympics. Turns out, we just had the warmest January on record. All our local snow melted, just weeks before the ski jump and snow board competitions.”

Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, wrote, “You HAVE to be kidding.  Do you know what it costs to insure my home here in the Florida Keys?  How hard is it to get property insurance? […] Yes, Virginia, there really is global warming.  Just ask any insurance company — and those who pay them who live in the Keys.”

Yes, Virginia—and Maryland, and the District, and Delaware, and Tasmania

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.

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