Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: IBM will ask its 28,000 suppliers to monitor and disclose their energy use, heat-trapping gas emissions, waste, and recycling. Spread across 90 countries, the suppliers are compelled to install software designed to help firms understand their impact–if they want to continue working with the computing and services giant. “Ultimately, if a supplier cannot be compliant with requirements on the environment and sustainability, we’ll stop doing business with them,” said IBM’s John Paterson.

In Washington, the policy community anticipates in the next week or so the first public draft of a new Senate climate and energy bill. The bill will not surface on Earth Day, April 22, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “We don’t want to mix messages here,” he said, “I’m all for protecting the Earth but this is about energy independence.”

Capping It All off: The New York Times declared “cap-and-trade” dead several weeks ago, only to quietly run a sort of non-correction correction last weekend. The draft Senate bill is expected to create a market in which regulated companies can buy and sell permits to emit heat-trapping gases.

Leaks from the Senate suggest that the bill, written by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Graham, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), would impose limits on the industrial pollution of heat-trapping gases and allow regulated companies to buy and sell emissions permits. The utility sector would initiate the program in 2012, followed by heavy industry in 2016. The Senate bill will treat transportation fuels differently, requiring a “fee” levied after products are refined, and before drivers pump it into their vehicles. This sector-by-sector approach to climate policy has been greeted with some openness from a few Republican lawmakers, including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Would new support offset a loss of support among Democrats angered by President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to expand offshore oil exploration?

When the troika introduces the bill, responsibility for moving it into the Senate goes to Majority Leaders Harry Reid. “His challenge could not be tougher,” writes Darren Samuelsohn in ClimateWire. Reid will try to navigate the bill to the Senate floor at the same time he’s juggling a new Supreme Court nomination, financial reform, and a rough re-election campaign. Graham and Kerry modestly disagreed on the possible implications for the climate bill of the Supreme Court confirmation process.

The Senate bill will reportedly also contain a provision that eliminates both the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas regulations, and state and regional climate programs. That would halt development of programs including the Western Climate Initiative. The WCI this week previewed a new analysis that projects an average price of about $33 to emit a ton of carbon dioxide in 2020. States could continue programs that improve energy efficiency or set renewable energy standards.

Down-to-Earth Business: Is most discernable “movement” in the environmental arena to be found this year in the private sector? Reuters finds supporting evidence. The still-tough economic climate encourages firms to cut waste and inefficiency, and sustainability offers a common approach. Strained consumer budgets discourage spending on premium “clean” products. (The consumers who are interested in shelling out a little bit more for a greener product might note that the EPA and Department of Energy’s Energy Star label just became stricter.) The trend calls to mind a catch-phrase of Gregory Unruh, a corporate sustainability expert affiliated with the Thunderbird School of Global Management: “Embed it and forget it.” He writes in his new book, Earth, Inc.: “We’ll reach the sustainability destination when we embed the principles that account for the biosphere’s sustainability to business practice in profitable ways” [pdf introduction].

Energy efficiency is the fastest path to sustainability for many companies, and by extension the least intrusive way for policymakers to push climate-and-energy goals forward. This week Nicholas Institute Senior Policy Associate Etan Gumerman co-authored an ambitious, widely received study with Professor Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech that concludes smart policy should bring vast energy and financial savings. The modeling study shows that a suite of nine policies could result in $41 billion in energy bill savings, the creation of 320,000 new jobs, and a water savings of 8.6 billion gallons in 2020. “We looked at how these policies might interact, not just single programs,” Gumerman said. “The interplay between policies compounds the savings. And it’s all cost-effective. On average, each dollar invested in energy efficiency over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits.” The study was picked up by numerous major and trade media outlets across the country, and is available here.

Universities are stepping up their training of America’s future workforce. Engineering students increasingly seek programs that specialize in sustainability, drawn by renewed interest in industry and pushed by current and expected new government policies. US News and World Report writes, “Today’s engineering students are reacting to having grown up in environmentally ‘perilous times.’” [Duke's Pratt School of Engineering includes an environmental engineering initiative as one of its four academic pillars.]

In the Clear: A panel dismissed charges of scientific fraud and other accusations levied against researchers affiliated with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Ron Oxburgh, an earth scientist, former defense adviser, and former Shell chairman, and colleagues pinged the climatologists for not consulting closely with top statisticians when they conduct their statistics-driven analysis of temperature records and proxy records. A statistician on the review panel said it was unlikely statistical errors undermine the basic science.

Cat Exits Open Bag: The Guardian publishes a memo detailing U.S. communications strategy in international climate talks. The document was found “on a European hotel computer and passed to the Guardian,” which doesn’t offer much of a clue for pinpointing who might have left it there. At the top of the list: “Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change.”

Genie Exits Bottle:A volcanic eruption in Iceland has grounded aircraft in the U.K. and Europe, but early reports suggest it’s too small to have a noticeable short-term cooling effect globally. Sulfate aerosols released in volcanic explosions tend to have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. One controversial idea to manage climate change is to mimic eruptions by spraying aerosols into the high atmosphere from aircraft. For more on this and other “geoengineering” ideas, see (both!) of two great new books on the topic, Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch of Science, and How to Cool the Planet, by Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone. I happily “blurbed” the former, and reviewed the latter recently in BusinessWeek.

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are making previously obscure monthly data dumps from NOAA and NASA into regular conversation pieces among observers to the climate arena. The March numbers came out this week and zipped across blogs and news sites:

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for March 2010 was the warmest on record at 13.5 deg C (56.3 deg F), which is 0.77 deg C (1.39 deg F) above the 20th century average of 12.7 deg C (54.9 deg F). This was also the 34th consecutive March with global land and ocean temperatures above the 20th century average.

It’s worth asking, particularly as Earth Day queues up next week, will climate data eventually make it big as an economic indicator?

Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?: For a couple of weeks, I’ve had a tiny bee in my bonnet along these lines and I finally figured out why. It’s this sentence in the Washington Post review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar (I mentioned this in this space two weeks ago). Here:

The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. [Emphasis added]

Initially I was just hung up on how someone hoping to come across as an informed person, or who is supposed to be an informed person, could string together these words with a straight face. The larger problem is that this is just one signal–anecdotally reinforced elsewhere–that many smart, educated, successful people don’t know that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere.

If Earth Day has any singular goal at all, and I’ve never been convinced, it should be this: Make the Keeling curve more famous. Deutsch Bank recently bought a huge billboard across the street from Madison Square Garden in New York City. It has a running tally of the tons of carbon dioxide humans have put into the atmosphere, in the spirit of the famous National Debt Clock. But what would happen if instead it were the Keeling Curve? With other Keeling Curves in Times Square, at the New York Stock Exchange, in Parisian art installations, projected on clouds on Earth Day like the Bat signal. What do the neuroeconomists and behaviorists say about this? Is there a Keeling Curve app yet for the iPad?

What do you think?

Graph courtesy Scripps Institution

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

One Response to Why Isn’t the Keeling Curve More Famous?

  1. george shea says:

    Eric –

    I’m a children’s author at work on a biography of Charles David Keeling. It amazes me that
    there never has been a book about Keeling. I know for sure mine is the only one in the works.

    It amazes me all the more when 99 percent of the educated informed people I talk to
    tell me they’ve never heard of Keeling. It all really does get a bit surreal. I was heartened today by your post suggesting that the Keeling Curve be displayed in Times Square on a giant electronic billboard. It might finally wake some people up. Maybe even that reviewer for the Washington Post.

    It really is pretty bizarre. A close friend, not a Tea Party guy, a registered Democrat with
    a college education, someone whose intelligence I respect, said to me recently: “I think
    we’re probaby more likely to head into another ice age.” I was horrified. One more reason to write the Keeling book which I hope will accomplish something. Any child (or adult)
    who gets the Keeling Curve will get the most simple basic fact of global warming. (It’s all
    about carbon, Stupid). Also as Keeling later worked on ice core analysis, a Keeling bio
    provides an opportunity to explain the basics of gobal warming as it tells the story of
    Keeling’s life.
    I’ve been reading “The Carbon Age.” The “Bell Jar” chapter on Keeling is great. Some of the other chapters have been a challenge as I don’t have a heavy science background but
    I love the writing. Are you planning to be at the SEJ conference in Missoula in mid-Oct.?
    If so, I’d certainly look forward to meeting you.

    Best.

    George Shea

    For a couple of weeks, I’ve had a tiny bee in my bonnet along these lines and I finally figured out why. It’s this sentence in the Washington Post review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar (I mentioned this in this space two weeks ago). Here:

    The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there’s no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. [Emphasis added]

    Initially I was just hung up on how someone hoping to come across as an informed person, or who is supposed to be an informed person, could string together these words with a straight face. The larger problem is that this is just one signal–anecdotally reinforced elsewhere–that many smart, educated, successful people don’t know that carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere.

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