Hurricane Resurfaces Forgotten Election Issue: Climate Change

November 1, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, bringing blizzards to West Virginia and flooding to the northeast, some debated the storm’s connection to climate change. Scientists took to Twitter to share their opinions on how warming has made Sandy worse with Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe tweeting that sea level is 7 inches higher now compared to 100 years ago and about 15 percent of the unusually warm sea surface temperatures fueling Sandy are a result of climate change. Bloomberg Businessweek left no one guessing on the focus of their Sandy coverage with a cover reading: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

The storm, Slate claimed, is a hybrid many scientists just don’t really understand well. Actually connecting the storm to man-made climate change is much more challenging. The Houston Chronicle reported: “The bottom line is that climate change is unquestionably having an effect on the weather around us by raising the average temperature of the planet. This is producing warmer temperatures and very likely increasing the magnitude of droughts. However, it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time.” David Roberts of Grist disagrees with this kind of hedging. He says, “When the public asks, ‘Did climate change cause this?’ they are asking a confused question”—one akin to asking if steroids caused a specific home run by Barry Bonds. Others avoid the causation question altogether, and wonder whether Sandy will be a wake-up call for climate resilience.

While Sandy smashed records—for economic loss, closure of the New York Stock Exchange and mass transit—its effect on the impending election remain uncertain. The Los Angeles Times suggests that Sandy’s arrival may actually get presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to address climate change—a long-ignored issue of the campaign thus far. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are among those calling for the candidates to circle back to the issue.

Energy Impacts in Wake of Sandy

In the wake of Sandy, nuclear power outages were the second highest in a decade. More than 6.1 million customers in the northeastern U.S. have been left without power, and utility companies have warned that blackouts may persist until after the election. Many of these power companies had come under fire for their slow response to recent storm-related power outages, and their response to Sandy could put them to the test.

To help deal with energy needs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waived clean gasoline rules—required under the Clean Air Act—for more than a dozen states. The waiver lets conventional gasoline be sold instead of cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia through Nov. 20.

Alternative Sources Rising

The International Energy Agency released a report challenging the notion hydropower has peaked. It shares the steps necessary to double hydroelectricity power by 2050—preventing roughly 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel plants annually.

Across the globe in Germany, renewable energy production is projected to grow far faster than original forecasts. “The current boom in new installations of wind, solar and other renewable power sources will easily top the official target of 35 percent by 2022, reaching about 48 percent by then,” said Stephan Kohler, head of the government-affiliated agency overseeing Germany’s electricity grid. Scotland is also looking to ambitious renewable energy goals—setting a 50 percent renewables target by 2015.

Sweden is looking to other ways to cut carbon dioxide: garbage. In fact, only 4 percent of the country’s waste ends up in the landfill due to their efficiency to convert waste into renewable energy. They generate enough electricity to power roughly 250,000 homes annually—even importing near 800,000 tons of trash to fuel their habit.

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.


Presidential Candidates Give Little Focus to Energy Policy in First Debate

October 4, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Predictions voters would get some answers on energy in the first presidential debate seemed as though they just might come true Wednesday night in Colorado. Just minutes into the broadcast, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama touched on their policies for energy. Even so, the topic of energy was mostly overshadowed by tax policy and health care. As The Houston Chronicle’s Loren Steffy writes “what was said, mostly about fossil fuels, really didn’t raise any new points.”

Previously, on the campaign trail, both candidates proposed higher production of energy as a way to address the nation’s 8.1 percent unemployment rate. The National Journal states economists have said for months that energy production—whether through increased oil and gas drilling or boosting renewable energy or both—won’t create enough jobs to put most of the nation’s 23 million unemployed back to work (subscription).The Washington Post took a closer look at these and other numbers thrown out by candidates during the debate—summing up their origin and any discrepancies.

The largely under-the-radar issue of climate change never even entered the debate. Climate Desk calls climate change “the sleeper issue of 2012,” noting polls indicate both candidates could be using the issue to their advantage. Several new polls indicate voters are backing climate and clean energy policies. Regardless of whether or not the candidates are talking about the issue, the United Nation’s top climate change official Christiana Figueres said whoever wins in November will be forced to confront global warming.

‘Liquid Air’ could be Renewable Energy Storage Solution

Liquid air could work better than batteries or hydrogen for storing excess energy produced from wind turbines or other renewable energy sources during off-peak times, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. A company in the United Kingdom is testing how the liquid air method—originally developed to power vehicles—could help use some of this “wrong-time” energy.

The method would use electricity from off-peak hours to take in air—removing carbon dioxide and water vapor in order to chill air to a cryogenic state. This turns what’s left, which is mostly nitrogen, to a liquid that is stored in giant vacuum flasks until demand increases and it can be warmed again. Re-expanding air could be used to drive turbines.

While the growth in renewables is among the contributing factors to the 9 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. since 2005, one analysis says this decline is unlikely to continue unless there are major departures from the way energy is currently produced and used. The report lays out specific energy-related changes that would need to occur between now and 2035 to have a chance at reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 38 percent below 2005 levels. These include: growth in renewables beyond the 5 percent electricity makeup today to 31 percent by 2035 as well as gains in residential, commercial and industrial energy-using equipment.

Energy Claims among Revised Guidelines for Green Product Labels

The Federal Trade Commission is clamping down on “Green” or “Eco” product labeling—updating marketing guidelines for the first time since 1998. Now, the Commission says product manufacturers better have data to back up claims. Updates cover not only topics in the existing guide, but include new sections clarifying renewable energy and materials claims, as well as the use of carbon offsets and “green” certifications. Specifically, the guides renewable energy claims section instructs marketers to consider specifying the type of energy source used to remain less deceptive. To further avoid the possibility of fines, it cautions against making unqualified “made with renewable energy claims.” It notes that would be deceptive “… unless all, or virtually all, of the significant manufacturing processes involved in making the product or package are powered with renewable energy or non-renewable energy matched by renewable energy certificates.”

Farm Bill Lapses, as Plant Discoveries are Made

As the Weather Channel announced plans to assign names to winter storms as they do for hurricanes, the drought’s effect on crops coupled with the lapse of the Farm Bill has left some to question the larger consequences of the expiration. The Washington Post breaks down what to expect now that the law governing many of our nation’s farm policies has expired. Among the potential consequences: higher milk prices and the lapse of some conservation programs. Mark Hertsgaard, in The New York Times, says the bill is not only a “centerpiece of United States food and agricultural policy, it is also a de facto climate bill.”

Meanwhile, a trio of scientists studying inland plants described in the journal Nature the opposite of what many climate models predict—inland plants may not be so great at pulling increasing carbon dioxide from the air. Looking back on a 13-year set of observations from experimental grassland plots in Minnesota, the study authors found heightened carbon dioxide means more plant growth, but only if there’s the right mix of nutrients available in the soil.

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.


What Is the True Social Cost of Carbon?

September 20, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.

Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.

Climate Change in the Stone Age

Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.

In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption  could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.

PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”

Country-Sized Emissions

Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.

It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.

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.