Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has repeatedly pledged to create the “greenest government ever,” and now the country has adopted a new, ambitious goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, aiming by 2025 to slash them by half, compared with 1990.
The goal, agreed to by Cabinet ministers in the ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in line with the legally binding targets the country adopted in 2008 when the Labor Party was in charge, for a 60 percent cut in emissions by 2030, and an 80 percent cut by 2050.
The new target goes beyond European Union targets, and some in industry are pushing for the targets to be conditional, depending on whether Europe as a whole sets similar goals. Much depends on how the figures are calculated; a study last year found that including emissions from Britain’s imports would make their emissions the highest in Europe.
However, there is “no clear agreement on how to achieve the target,” says The Independent. To help reach these goals, though, the U.K. plans to keep existing nuclear plants running, and will push ahead with plans to build more, after the country’s nuclear watchdog group reported there was no reason to revise safety standards in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster. Energy minister Chris Huhne said, “We want to see new nuclear as part of a low carbon energy mix going forward, provided there is no public subsidy.”
Concerns about Nuclear Safety Raised, Dismissed
In Japan, a new assessment by power company TEPCO confirmed suspicions that one of the reactors did suffer a partial meltdown soon after the earthquake and tsunami.
The country has a long history of officials concealing or ignoring dangers in the nuclear industry, according to a New York Times investigation. Lawsuits stretching back nearly a decade tried to raise concern about safety standards. One of the plaintiffs, Yuichi Kaido of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said of Fukushima: “This accident could have been prevented.”
The technical failures in the nuclear power plant—especially emergency vents—raise concerns about the safety of U.S. nuclear plants, another New York Times investigation says, rebutting American officials’ statements that the U.S. plants aren’t vulnerable to the kinds of problems that occurred in Japan.
European countries other than the U.K., such as Germany and Italy, have paused plans for nuclear expansion, and shut down some plants. Some developing countries are pushing ahead with nuclear power, though. Iran has brushed off warnings of earthquake dangers and is continuing with plans for nuclear plants, the Associated Press reported, and Pakistan opened a new nuclear power plant, built with China’s help.
Driving in a Wedge
Nuclear power was one of several “wedges” that could help the world counter climate change, according to a popular way of thinking about emissions cuts developed in 2004 by two Princeton University professors. The approach was meant to break targets—such as the U.K.’s emissions targets—into a number of pieces, to see how quickly measures would have to be ramped up.
But the study was misunderstood and the basic message distorted, one of the authors, Robert Socolow, told National Geographic News. “With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” he said. “The intensity of belief that renewables and conservation would do the job approached religious.” Nonetheless, he stands by the general approach, Socolow wrote in a comment to Climate Progress.
Congressional Log Jam
Both Republicans and Democrats introduced major oil bills—but neither managed to pass. Democrats introduced a bill to end $2 billion in tax breaks for big oil companies, a measure President Obama has been pushing for. In Senate hearings, oil company executives were asked to defend the tax breaks—eliciting what a New York Times editorial called “a big whine from Big Oil.”
While Obama had urged that the money be put toward clean energy, the defeated bill would have put the extra revenue toward paying down federal debt. A narrow majority voted for it, but it needed 60 votes to advance.
Republicans, on the other hand, supported a bill to allow more offshore drilling and speed up the process for drilling permits. That bill was rejected with 42 to 57; it, too, needed 60 votes to advance.
Rex Tillerson—the CEO of Exxon, the world’s biggest independent oil company—was booked to speak at the commencement at Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston—but the choice was controversial with both faculty and staff.
Student protesters said Tillerson was not fit to speak at the commencement because of (among other things) Exxon’s contributions to “a disinformation campaign against global warming.”
Rather than trying to block Tillerson’s speech, however, students invited peak oil expert Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute to speak after Tillerson—and some students walked out of the quad when Tillerson spoke, returning to hear Heinberg afterward.
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.
“Recent comments from top White House and congressional contenders suggest an awkward mix of outright hostility or, at best, ambivalence toward the widespread scientific consensus that humans are responsible for the warming planet,” reports Politico.
Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) blames his loss in the GOP primary to his public assertions that climate change is real. Only two Republican gubernatorial candidates running for election this November believe in action on climate change; both are running in states where their Democratic opponents feel the same.
In one race for the House in Virginia, a Democratic incumbent may lose his seat in part because of his vote for the House cap-and-trade bill.
Colorado’s tight race for U.S. Senate is turning into a referendum on the power of views on climate change to sway voters, at least in that state: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is attacking his opponent, Tea Party favorite and Republican Ken Buck, for saying climate change is a “hoax.” It’s a stance that earned a sharp rebuke from Colorado’s climate scientists (the state hosts one of the country’s premier centers for the study of climate change, the National Center for Atmospheric Research).
Despite support from some of his potential constituents — “Climate change doubt is Tea Party article of faith,” says the New York Times — Buck appears to be responding to the criticism by shifting his focus to the economy.
Green groups say they are pouring more money into this electoral season’s races than ever, especially in the fight to rescue incumbent Virginia Democratic freshman Tom Perriello, but their spending can’t match funds coming from fossil-fuel-related industries. Mother Jones says Alaska write-in candidate (and incumbent) Lisa Murkowski, in a dead heat with Tea Party favorite and Republican nominee Joe Miller, is a beneficiary of those funds.
On Tuesday, Jimmy Carter opined the Tea Party is backed by anti-green “hard-right oligarchs who want to prevent the oil companies and major corporations from having to pay their share of taxes or to comply with environmental laws.”
Which Will Characterize the Next Two Years on the Hill: Compromise or Gridlock?
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told students at Utah State University to expect “two years of good old-fashioned gridlock” if the GOP wins the House in November, including, possibly, a shutdown of the federal government. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) declared there will be “no compromise” with President Barack Obama on major issues.
It’s possible energy will be spared the fate of, say, the health care bill, says Darren Samuelsohn of Politico, suggesting incentives for nuclear, clean coal and even renewables might be prime candidates for bipartisan legislation. Lindsey Graham, who once participated in the creation of the senate cap-and-trade bill, says the GOP should work with Obama on energy, perhaps in the incremental approach currently favored by the Obama administration.
The oil and gas industry is already depositing checks into the coffers of candidates likely to head influential House committees after November; the industry remains focused on emissions rules and what it contends are unrealistic expectations about the ascension of renewables.
A “technology-first” approach to tackling carbon emissions is gaining favor among think tanks.
Are We Getting Cap, but No Trade?
Stephen Spruiell at National Review argues emissions regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make emissions for certain industries expensive without letting them trade for those emissions, as they would have under cap-and-trade. He also argues it may be nearly impossible to prevent the EPA from regulating emissions in this way.
The regulations at issue include the EPA’s first-ever fuel efficiency standards for trucks and buses, which the trucking industry supports. Canada is issuing its own rules in harmony with U.S. regulations.
Emissions Regulations Will Knock Out up to 7 Percent of U.S. Generating Capacity, says Study
A huge debate has erupted over a North American Electric Reliability report arguing in a worst-case scenario, the shutdown of coal-fired power plants will, as a result of emissions regulations, significantly impact U.S. generating capacity.
In Texas, farms, cities and environmentalists say the state has insufficient water for more coal-fired plants.
And Now Some Good News …
A four-seater electric Audi with ample trunk space managed to travel 375 miles on a single charge. The non-partisan (even though so far all of its members seem to be partisan) Climate Hawk movement gained momentum.
GM just released its first ad for the Chevy Volt: “This is American, man.”
Spending money on greenhouse gas mitigation efforts in developing countries could make up the shortfall in domestic commitments to existing Copenhagen pledges, says a new paper.
OxFam’s new ads aim to bring immediacy to the impacts of climate change.
The U.S. government just approved the world’s largest solar thermal project — big enough to double U.S. capacity for solar thermal all by itself. We’re $100 billion away from increasing the proportion of U.S. electricity from solar to 4.3 percent by 2020.
The U.S. may have the world’s second-largest emissions of greenhouse gases, but on a map of per capita emissions it’s easy to lose the U.S. among all the countries with higher emissions, and Amazon wants to shrink their carbon footprint even further by offering greener shipping options.
… But New Challenges to a Livable Climate Continue to Arise
China’s chronic dependence on coal is still a monumental problem, reports Scientific American, and Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants cost neighboring communities $127 million in health-related expenses.
Cellulosic ethanol may be the cold fusion of biofuels, and fundamentally unsustainable, to boot, argues Grist’s Tom Philpott. Your next bottle of bioplastic might be made from plants, but in a world where cheap ethanol comes from cleared Brazilian forests, the move away from oil may not be all good.
Economists think energy efficiency might lead to more emissions, not fewer.Trees are prevented from soaking up extra atmospheric carbon by limited supplies of nitrogen, and just 1,000 spaceflights a year would warm the planet as much as the entire airline industry currently does.
Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’s lead climate commentator, reports climate change is “boring.” Perhaps that’s why the lead researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believes “climate change journalism has gotten worse [in recent years].”
First Things First: Tuesday night Rolling Stone magazine unveiled to a limited audience its new article called “The Runaway General.” But when something “goes viral” in the Internet age, there’s no such thing as a limited audience. In the piece, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, derides and criticizes the president, vice president, and other key senior members of the administration. It caused a media-wide storm and led to McChrystal’s resignation within about 36 hours. President Barack Obama replaced him with General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command. The story has little direct bearing on climate developments, except that in scrambling to defuse the situation, the White House postponed a meeting about climate legislation between Obama and several Democratic and Republican senators. The meeting is likely to be rescheduled for next week, but supporters of action lamented the loss of several working days on what’s already a tight legislative calendar.
Parlor-vous Washington?: A policy approach favored by many environmentalists would set a national limit for greenhouse gas emissions and let the free market find the most efficient ways to meet it. A compromise approach floated this week and not immediately dismissed by the White House and others would limit the cap-and-trade element to the utility sector. (The approach championed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lieberman would set up a utility-sector program in 2013, followed by heavy manufacturing three years later.) With legislation and the schedule to roll it out still in the works, some environmental and liberal groups are paying $11 million for an ad campaign supporting energy and climate legislation.
What is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) thinking? That’s what Darren Samuelsohn, who recently moved from GreenWire to Politico, asks in a piece about Graham’s evolving position on things energy and climate: “It’s become a bit of a parlor game in Washington to guess at Sen. Lindsey Graham’s true motivation for abandoning negotiations on comprehensive energy and climate legislation.” First, senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s initial decision to fast-track immigration policy before climate and energy first separated Graham from the issue. Second, the BP spill scuttled hopes that expanded offshore drilling, which Graham supports, would quickly bring together pro-climate policy Democrats and pro-domestic energy Republicans. Finally, Graham has suggested that climate be held until the next Congress and the Senate knock out an energy bill this year. Earlier in the week, Politico weighed in on John Kerry’s relationship with his Senate colleagues on the issue. Kerry brings enormous knowledge and passion to the issue, which several other senators interviewed in the story admire but can’t always agree with.
Blood and Gore and Sustainability: These are perilous times for climate policy. California will vote in November on whether to suspend its 2006 climate law. The G20 meets this week in Toronto, but with many issues considered more urgent than sustainability and climate change on the agenda. Still, many eyes remain on Washington. As Al Gore told Eric Pooley in Copenhagen last December: “If the Senate defeats the bill, that is an event horizon beyond which it is difficult to see.” Gore and his co-founder of Generation Investment Management, David Blood—a memorable byline if there ever was one—use real estate on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to make a case for sustainable capitalism, and the promise and peril of free markets. “For these reasons and others, markets lie at the foundation of every successful economy… At the very least, the last decade has clearly demonstrated that free and unfettered markets, as they are currently operating, have simply not been delivering optimal long-term results.”
The U.N. Global Compact and Accenture have found a noteworthy increase since 2007 in the number of CEOs who believe sustainability should be built into the core of their businesses. Their report surveys 766 executives, 80 percent of whom claimed that the economic downturn increased their commitment to efficiencies, cost-saving, and new products that are believed to emerge with sustainable business. European executives make up more than half of the pool (439 people), followed by the Americas (156), Asia/Pacific (113), and Africa/Middle East (58). The broad goals, however, are tempered by the complexity of implementing them across business units, competing priorities, and the rest of the market lagging in its valuing of sustainability.
Ford, et al, and the Electric Car: The White House and electrically powered vehicles have a long, uneven history, going back at least to Sept. 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage was accidentally rammed by one. (He escaped with slight injuries.) In 1976 both houses of Congress approved a $160 million plan to develop an electric car within five years, over President Gerald Ford’s veto. The president called the proposed effort “premature and wasteful.” I don’t know what happened to that program but personal observations and anecdotal evidence suggest it didn’t take off. The Gulf oil spill has led to renewed interest in some parts in a transportation sector fueled on something other than petroleum. The Obama administration this week agreed to support a bipartisan Senate bill that would spend $6 billion on new infrastructure and supporting programs in 15 test cities. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the measure could end up as an amendment to an energy (or energy-and-climate) bill this year.
American Climate Idol?: There must be a way to shrink the vast pool of climate-related sciences and scientists, so that non-specialists of any ideological stripe can agree on the expert thinking and information available… right? A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences digs through scientific literature to compile a portfolio of researchers who publish frequently about climate change and whose work is frequently cited—metrics for climate credibility. Of 1,372 scientists whose work qualified them as leading and active climate experts, 97 percent to 98 percent support the basic understanding of manmade global warming. Doubters have lower levels of “climate expertise and scientific prominence.” In the climatic blogosphere, fireworks ensued over whether the paper amounts to some kind of Bravo-style reality show, like Top Chef, to determine who is… “Top Climatologist!” Kidding aside, the paper is a methodical approach to a challenging issue: How to assign credibility and expertise in a culture that too frequently equates it with page hits.
Something to consider: Pictures of pelicans stained and paralyzed with oil have made the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and circulated around the Web. These protected animals have quickly become poster birds for the Gulf oil spill, iconic as they were already in coastal habitats. Their ecological value is matched by their evolutionary history. The struggle to prevent harm to pelicans in particular is brought home by a study in the Journal of Ornithology (via New Scientist). Research on a 30-million-year-old fossil pelican shows that their beaks virtually haven’t changed in that time. It suggests they reached an “evolutionary optimum”—but one not optimized toward living in a hydrocarbon stew.
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: 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.
First Things First: U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed confidence that international negotiators can resolve impediments to a global climate agreement, and that Copenhagen will be a productive step in that process. Ban visited Washington, DC, where he and climate adviser Janos Pasztor spoke with lawmakers about the international community’s expectations for U.S. leadership on global climate policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that the Copenhagen COP-15 talks can be a useful “stepping stone toward full legal agreement.”
President Barack Obama may visit Copenhagen in December if he can help clinch a deal, although his track record on visiting Copenhagen to clinch deals has a 100 percent fail rate (with a sample of one). A quiet-ish week for climate on Capitol Hill pushed news out to the states, where politicians and scientists are fighting what for a while it seemed like were yesterday’s battles.
Let’s Call a Spade a Rake: Political speech sometimes has a duplicitous relationship to the record of observations and understanding that makes up what we know on any given day about “physical reality.” Few things highlight this duality quite like global warming, and no prominent columnist spends more energy prying climate rhetoric and understanding farther apart than Newsweek and Washington Post columnist George Will.
Will’s most recent column about climate change, “Everyone Out of the Water!”, makes a useful touchstone for a week marked by a widening gap between political rhetoric and scientific observation. Space limitations limit analysis of Will’s column to two points, a falsehood and a self-deflating contradiction.
Falsehood: Will dubs as “cooling” conditions that have conspired to make 10 of the hottest years on record all occur between 1997 and 2008, despite flat temperature readings. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. If Newsweek editors follow the lead of their Washington Post colleagues, the magazine will issue no correction, and in fact, allow him to repeat this in a later column. In April, Washington Post reporters went to the possibly unprecedented length of correcting him in a news article.
Self-Deflating Contradiction: Will questions whether “computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming.” This is a fine thing to question. In fact, the entire reason we have computer models is to question them. What they do, sometimes, is give us a sense of probabilities, and among them, a sense of the probability for catastrophic, non-catastrophic, and bearable global warming. Say that you aren’t interested in climate-model projections at all. Say you are interested in U.S. population growth. You might construct a scenario based on what we know of U.S. population growth and conditions for the next few decades. In fact, later in his column, Will writes of emissions targets in the recent House climate bill, “The last time this nation had that small an amount [of emissions] was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050.” Interesting: Why should Will ask us to dismiss any value of climate modeling, and then build his argument for ignorance and inaction based on population modeling? Climate Post bets George Will would never say to a successful hedge fund, Well, you didn’t really make all of that money because you were just using computer models to project probabilities of market behavior and bet accordingly.
Will is only the most prominently published politico to distort scientific habits of mind and the results of vetted observation. In Illinois, five of seven Republican gubernatorial candidates have taken positions against documentation and observation. Utah’s governor and state legislators this week received a “stinging rebuke” from Brigham Young University scientists for privileging “fringe positions.” In this kind of environment, credit goes to the U.S. Senate House Republicans who are pushing back at the Interior Department’s recent move to set up a climate operation: Their letter appears to keep the conversation focused on “What to do” rather than “What’s going on.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who signed the letter, is helping address a hole in science-and-technology research by co-sponsoring a bill that would set up awards for developers of technologies to gobble up airborne carbon dioxide economically and dispose of it.
What’s Going on: Politics and scientific data have typically driven the climate conversation in the U.S. That’s changing, as, across the country, professionals are realizing that warming might challenge or change standard operating procedures. Western water managers face “a pretty daunting and disconcerting reality that we’re beginning to get our heads around,” according to a Nevada official quoted in Climate Wire. The Army Corps of Engineers sees at least some benefit to projections of potential climate change so that “make stupid large investments that are difficult or impossible to undo.” Observational data bear out their concern. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced this week for the last decade record-high temperatures have occurred twice as frequently as record-low ones.
Welcome to Our Growing Indian Audience: Nothing could be less surprising than, even 14 years after a international scientific collaboration detected a “discernible human influence” on global warming, a writer as influential as George Will being allowed by editors to put forth demonstrable falsehoods about the topic. This criticism is not leveled on policy issues. Deciding to do nothing about warming is one reaction to the preponderance of evidence demonstrating the risks of change. Deciding to reduce U.S. emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–as developing nations argue we should–is another take. The latter route might lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression. The former might also lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression–just not in our lifetimes. Or it might not. That’s the charm of climate change: You really have to decide how much you want to jeopardize the future based on scientifically generated risk data. George Will might argue something like the former, if he would like. He might argue something like the latter, if he would like. But whatever he argues, he might help everyone by looking more deeply at his characterization of climate risk. There’s a big difference between “catastrophic global climate change” and “the risk of catastrophic global climate change.” (Climate Post called Will’s office earlier this year, proposing a year-long team climate reporting project, but never received a response.) After all, what difference can a few degrees make?
[Late addition: Will’s irresponsible columns are a greater tragedy when placed against the sad backdrop of U.S. media dematerialization. Newsweek announced a new round of layoffs this week.]
After a month spent talking in India in part about all the new, interesting, and productive climate–related developments occurring in the U.S, it’s a shame to have to spend time pushing back against mean-spirited factual incorrectness. To boot, our national conversation is no longer a national conversation. It’s “global” warming, not “America” warming. Many of the people who may live with the economic, social, political, and physical consequences of change are listening, looking to the U.S. for leadership, and not always finding it.
Lately, every week is the most consequential in the history of climate change. This week was no exception. A House of Representatives committee slogged through its potentially game-changing climate bill. The White House struck a deal with auto manufacturers and California to raise fuel efficiency — and consequently reduce carbon emissions. Uneven signals from China promise hope for some kind of agreement but foreshadow a tough road to achieve it. These are all simultaneous episodes in a larger story of transformation.
The House at the Center of the World: The House of Representatives now sits at the epicenter. Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee last Friday unveiled a full draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, cogently and quickly summarized by the Washington Post and Reuters. Democrats came to initial agreement on some of the thorniest issues, including how to allocate carbon credits to heavy polluters and other market participants, according to Greenwire. Among the major recipients of help, power companies will receive 35 percent of the allowances, natural gas distributors 9 percent, and energy-intensive, trade-sensitive industries 15 percent.
The committee is voting the bill Waxman co-sponsored with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to the full House at this very writing. Through these minute-by-minute details, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.
Jargon Watch: Now and then, a word or phrase escapes the rarified journals and policy discussions where it was born, and greets an unsuspecting public. Such is the case with “cap and trade,” memorably deployed to mean “vague thing I’m supposed to understand but don’t” by the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd in a March column. ClimateWire has had fun with variations of it.
Whatever you call it, it’s the centerpiece of the Waxman-Markey bill.
In the last week or two, commentators and columnists have taken to op-ed pages with arguments against cap-and-trade, for it, and, well, mostly against it. (Policy op-eds frequently challenge the dominant trend.) Remember that a national climate policy, be it cap-‘n-trade, or a carbon tax, or Cap’n-America, is not an end in itself, but a way to help us help ourselves. Climate policy is designed to fix “the carbon problem” in our markets: Polluting is free but eventually could have seriously undesirable consequences.
What “cap-and-trade” means, and where it could carry us, hasn’t yet penetrated the chatter. E&E News reported this week that “[O]verall support for cap and trade trails far behind backing for increased investment in renewable energy, improved fuel efficiency for vehicles, implementation of a renewable electricity standard and even increased offshore drilling.” A cap and trade system is supposed to nudge the market toward increasing demand for new energy sources. Climate policy is a lever that increases investment in renewables, fuel efficiency, and may or may not affect the economics of oil drilling at home. The relationship between a national climate policy and these desirable goals isn’t “either-or” but “if-then.”
White House firing on all cylinders (now with greater efficiency): While the Energy and Commerce Committee worked over the Waxman-Markey bill, the administration announced the first major climate rule in U.S. history. Much to the administration’s delight, no one leaked news about new auto fuel efficiency standards before President Barack Obama’s announcement on Tuesday. That means official sources were willing to play along, as reporters captured rich chronologies (called “tick-tock” in the biz) of the secret negotiations, particularly the Los Angeles Times (LAT) and ClimateWire. The LAT pins down insider details, such as Ford’s 3 p.m. Sunday call to the White House saying the deal was off, and the subsequent impromptu cell-phone negotiations, with participants phoning from the bathroom at a Washington National’s game and a birthday party in New York. The new Corporate Auto Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules will establish a nationwide standard by 2016 that should reduce carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. cars and light-trucks by 30 percent.
Scaling the Great Wall that divides us: Secret negotiations were a motif this week. U.S. and Chinese negotiators began meeting last July trying to bridge their differences on emissions reductions, symbolically at the Great Wall. The Guardian broke news of the meetings on Monday, reporting that senior Bush administration advisers and several current Obama advisers met with Chinese officials. The back-channel talks led in March to an unsigned memorandum of understanding, which participants hope will embolden the world’s two largest national emitters to find a common ground in addressing the causes of climate change. The news comes at a time when the international climate community is gearing up for negotiations in December in Copenhagen.
Obama on Monday picked Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to China. A savvy selection, Huntsman is an up-and-comer in the Republican party, has served as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, and speaks fluent Mandarin. The Nicholas Institute, which operates The Climate Post, has conducted modeling studies of Utah’s policy options on climate change, under Huntsman’s administration. Obama has indicated he expects climate change to hold a prominent spot in Huntsman’s portfolio.
Talks between developed and developing nations will continue to shape international climate politics (witness the Indo-Asian News Service’s interest in an amendment to a bill moving through a House committee). The secret talks reported by the Guardian are only one item of interest in a complicated U.S.-Chinese relationship. Chinese officials confirmed for the Alliance France Presse earlier today their negotiating position for the end-of-the-year Copenhagen talks: China will ask that industrialized nations commit to emissions targets 40 percent below the amount they emitted in 1990 by 2020. The European Union has resigned itself to 20 percent reductions, and the House climate bill would reduce pollution 20 percent below 2005 levels.
Any unified global action must consider and guide international trade. The Washington Post showed just how complicated these relationships can be, in a front-page story Monday about the rise of China as a car-maker. Chinese companies have grown quickly, which means that their firms lack the technical expertise that can only emerge with time. “What they still lack is… being able to design new vehicles from scratch and get them to a manufacturing line,” Kelly Sims Gallagher of Harvard’s Kennedy School told the Post. A probable result: Chinese firms will try and buy ailing U.S. car companies — and their valuable human capital. Don’t miss Business Week‘s in-depth package on greening China.
Reporting? We don’t need no stinkin’ reporting!: Fortune magazine recently held its second Brainstorm Green conference, a star-studded event that brought together luminaries from the politics and business worlds. But editors undermined their expertise in climate issues — in business, politics, policy, and science — by publishing an article lacking the rigor and seriousness characteristic to the publication.
“What if global warming fears are overblown?” — the headline — is an important question to ask. Climate fears might be overblown. They might be “underblown.” But the risk of climate change — the consequences of catastrophic change times its probability — is serious enough to prompt global and quick action, a point the article fails to make. Instead, a financial writer, Jon Birger, asks “softball” questions of a University of Alabama, Huntsville, scientist, whose skepticism about the potential for severe global warming is out of step with the work of scientists who have re-examined his work in peer-reviewed journals (here, for example). Climate science is a vast body of physical, evidence, assembled by thousands of people, worldwide, over several decades. Putting eight questions to a scientist whose ideas were challenged professionally at least four years ago fails to communicate the preponderance of evidence that is driving the world to reduce the (rising) climate risk.
Everyone suffers from time-poverty, these days. Many areas of expertise have become deeply entwined with other disciplines and professions, even as we all have less time to explore them. That’s particularly true in climate change, where politics, business, Earth and life sciences, policy, and culture are all interdependent – yet no one can keep up on everything.
People close to energy-and-climate work in the U.S. Congress might not have time to read about new businesses that are bringing clean technologies to market, or a controversial article in a science journal, or events in far-flung corners of the world. People working on clean-tech start-ups might not have time to keep track of Congress. Readers interested in but not knowledgeable about energy-and-climate issues might get to just one or two articles a week on a subject outside their immediate spheres. The Web offers us boundless information, but limited context.
That’s why the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University is pleased to introduce The Climate Post, a weekly (for starters) narrative overview of news, trends, and events that shape the evolving climate mosaic. The Institute is an independent center charged with identifying and helping remove “sticking points” to progress in addressing our many environmental challenges.
The limits of media are a sticking point to dealing with climate change. Even before the wheels came off the traditional media, on average, climate coverage has been lacking in centralization and comprehensiveness. The Climate Post is our drop in the bucket, a way to make sense of what’s reported and how, what isn’t reported, and how the vast sweep of politics, policy, science, business, and culture all vie for our attention on the “story of the century.” We’re here to try and blend many stories into a single weekly narrative – delivered to you each Thursday afternoon at 3 p.m..
The Climate Post
Thursday, May 14, 2009
This week’s climate headlines are reminiscent of an old joke that touted “newspaper headlines the day after nuclear war.”
The New York Times: “Nuclear War, Third World Hit Hardest.”
The Wall Street Journal: “Nuclear War, Effect on Markets Uncertain.”
The Boston Globe: “Tip O’Neill Safe After Nuclear Blast.”
USA Today: “We’re Dead! Full AFC-NFC Box Scores, p. 11.”
You can tell it’s an old joke because concern about “newspapers” and “nuclear war” is very 20th century. Yet when you track this week’s headlines as climate legislation makes its way through the U.S. House, it’s clear not much has changed.
This morning’s Times and yesterday’s Washington Post headlines about the situation emphasize a near-deal among previously sparring Democrats. The Journal eyes new potential breaks for the auto industry and utilities in the bill. The Globe stays local, and writes that a national plan would supplant Massachusetts’ participation in a Northeast climate program.
The USA Today ran an Associated Press story on its Web site, and last week printed an article with the headline, “Celebs use star power to spotlight pet causes; Environmental issues rate high on activist actors’ list.” (The paper reports that Prince Charles, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams and Pele teamed for a MySpace.com video about rainforests.)
Here’s our snapshot, this week: Waxman and his co-sponsor, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), are pressing the House Energy and Commerce Committee to pass their American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The bill would set a nationwide “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions – a limit – that would decline over time, as well as set a Renewable Electricity Standard. After two weeks of hearings in April and intense back-door negotiations with Committee members and their constituents back home, signs of a deal have begun to leak out. We should see a revised version of the bill, called the Manager’s Amendment, within the next few days.
Meanwhile, down Pennsylvania Avenue, the administration in recent weeks has issued new guidelines for biofuels (enflaming parts of industry), set in motion potential EPA regulations of carbon emissions from tailpipes, and backed a Bush administration decision on the inadequacy of the Endangered Species Act to address climate change indirectly, through the declining habitat for polar bears. [See this for biofuels and this for polar bears.]
These headlines have dominated in the Washington environmental world – but just as Americans are not the only people fighting information overload and time-poverty, Washington is not the only capital struggling with climate issues this week:
Citing the recession, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off plans to create a national market for industrial firms seeking to buy or sell credits to emit greenhouse gases. His government’s proposal had failed to garner support among environmentalists, who saw the targets as too thin, and industry, which hopes for more concessions.
This conversation plays out against a background of increasing concern about the effects of climate change already being witnessed down-under. The Economist reported this week that the volume of water reaching the Murray River in South Australia is lower than any other time in 117 years. The article is bluntly titled, “In need of a miracle.”
Local capitals are getting in on the action, too. Voters in British Columbia went to the polls and re-elected the Liberal party, giving a vote of confidence in the province’s carbon tax – the first law of its kind in North America. In the U.S., Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, has supported measures that would encourage the development of clean technology. Observers partially credit (or blame) her influence and new laws on Mid-Michigan Energy’s recent scuttling of a coal-fired power plant in Midland. But job-starved regions of the state welcome the work that would come from plant construction – and several remain in the pipeline. An energy company in Washington state pulled plans for a $1.5 billion coal-fired power plant, because it has no way of capturing the emissions.
A paper local to former President George W. Bush’s ranch, the Waco Tribune-Herald, editorialized today, “Dismiss talk of global warming and environmentalism if you must. But these times are changing fast and, along with them, the very way we heat and cool our homes and businesses.” That’s just one take in a state simultaneously encouraging its potential for solar energy while elected representatives to Washington fight the Waxman-Markey bill. When the Bushes visit family in Maine, they’ll encounter a new law in Kennebunkport that prevents cars and trucks from idling at banks, fast food restaurants, and at the beach (The Secret Service probably has pull).
Legislation and rules, scientific predictions and industry product lines are shaping the international response to global warming on a daily basis. We’ll bring you highlights weekly. A thousand words now and then can provide a pretty good picture. See you next week.