Deal or no deal

NI logoFirst things first: U.S. representatives may head into Independence Day recess with their climate work done for the moment. House leadership fast-tracked the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) after a breakthrough agreement Monday night between its co-sponsors and a powerful hold-out representing farmers and rural districts. A vote on the house floor could come as early as tomorrow.* The momentum shift drew President Barack Obama back into the fray, where he was soon peppered with questions over how much his energy policy is expected to reduce U.S. oil imports in the long haul.

Predicted economic costs of climate policy drive debate on the Hill. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the ACES Act could cost households $175 a year on average by 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency updated its assessment of an earlier version of the bill, finding that it could cost households between $80 and $111 a year on average; lower-income families could save money. The Washington Post addresses confusion about competing cost estimates for the bill. Fireworks previously ensued between Rep. John Boener (R-Ohio) and MIT professor John Reilly, whose study became the source for the former’s contention that the bill would cost Americans $3,128 a year in 2015. Overshadowing the whole cost-benefit debate is anyone’s inability to systematically value the benefits of action. This sentence from the Post strikes near the heart of the whole cost controversy: “The CBO, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, said it did not take into account any indirect benefits of slowing climate change, which are substantial but difficult to quantify.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was apparently listening to the concerns of House agricultural interests whose leadership withheld support for ACES bill for several weeks. Hoping to prevent such an impasse, Reid has begun to invite farm state senators into early debate in that chamber. The Senate may pick up the ACES Act as its starting point for deliberation. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will start working on climate change in her Environmental and Public Works Committee July 27. Reid says he would like committee work done by mid-September.

U.S. climate negotiators in Mexico nixed calls from developing nations that the U.S. reduce its emissions much more dramatically than Congress or the administration has publicly considered. Major economies moved toward an “aspirational goal” of halving global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with talks to continue in Italy next month.

Choose your words carefully: Switching the word “finally” to “initially” in the House climate bill potentially relieved 100 coal-burning power plants from greenhouse gas emissions regulations, Politico reports. Originally, only plants that are now “finally” permitted–or have survived any legal challenges–were exempt. Now, “initially” permitted plants, which have only begun the regulatory journey and are much more numerous, would be grandfathered in, too.

How can mere mortals catch such changes? (High-pitched) blog posts at the Sunlight Foundation drum against an age-old problem: no one, with the possible exception of this guy, has time to read and thoughtfully consider 1,000-page bills in the brief hours or days between release and vote. As a quick guide, the Energy and Commerce Committee did issue a broad map of changes here [pdf].

And now, the star of our show: Sunlight abounds in climate world this week, just as the Northern Hemisphere spins its way into summer.

Developments in “clean energy,” particularly solar technologies, occur at every scale, from U.S. neighborhoods to cities to states. This month saw an intercontinental project. A consortium of German firms and European official groups and nongovernmental organizations will invest $555 billion to build sunlight concentrators in northern African desert. (An earlier report had the power wired to Europe.)

Much of India sees the sun nearly 300 days a year. Yet its nascent solar industry exports two-thirds of its products to Europe, China, and North America. To date producers have paid less attention to the domestic market. That’s changing. Rising demand, falling costs, and government support have primed the market for growth. Industry leader Tata BP Solar is expanding into rural communities, in partnerships with banks and telecoms, with early success. In the province of Uttar Pradesh, one bank replaced its diesel-powered back-up generators with photovoltaics, which led to the financing of home lighting for 8,000 homes.

For most of the world, “going green” is less a motivator to adopt new energy technologies than “going electric” is. The Christian Science Monitor parachutes into Bangladesh to document the work of Grameen Shakti, the environmental wing of Grameen Bank, the microloan pioneer and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. The group distributes photovoltaic-and-battery systems for a 15 to 20 percent down payment. The balance is paid off in two or three years. Some shopkeepers see their monthly energy bills–the price of candles are cited as an example–cut in half. More than 200,000 solar panels now pump electrons into the service of customers around the country.

Private investors could inject $10 billion into China’s solar sector, thanks in part to government cash incentives cut the cost of installation in half. The moves are expected to boost domestic demand for solar in China, and poise the Eastern giant to compete with German manufacturers.

Back in Washington, green business writer Marc Gunther attends a solar-industry press breakfast, where Dow Corning and other manufacturers read out the wish list they are giving to Congress. It includes a permanent tax credit for manufacturers; a mandate for utilities to build a legislated percentage of renewable electricity sources into their mix (hence the name, “renewable electricity standard”); and mandates to buy renewable-generated power at a premium (“feed-in tariffs”).

Next time, 196 one-pagers…: Media offered little follow-up to last week’s 196-page White House report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The Grand Island Independent registers this story about what the report predicts for the future of Nebraska’s water supply — now the most irrigated in the U.S., and in some places, over-irrigated. The pace of water use from the High Plains aquifer already outstrips natural replenishment. The federal report’s prediction of continued rising thermometers, faster evaporation, and more drought, will add pressure to reverse the state’s irrigation drive.

For those dedicated souls who have already marked-up their White House science report, the International Alliance of Research Universities and U.K. government provide additional leisure reading.

Coal my lawyer!: The New Yorker files a largely sympathetic profile of James Hansen (sub. req.), the monumental climate scientist who has led NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for nearly three decades. Hansen has led the pack of scientists studying global warming for three decades. In the past two years he has taken aggressive policy positions–atypical for a scientist–that have made him a controversial public figure in some circles. (This week he, actress Darryl Hannah, and former FDR and Truman aide Ken Hechler were arrested in a civil disobedience protest against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.) Elizabeth Kolbert drops this admonishment into the profile:

There are lots of ways to lose an audience with a discussion of global warming, and new ones, it seems, are being discovered all the time.

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

* Any readers whose exclusive source of news is Climate Post should make sure to tune in next week for the outcome. If you can’t abide suspense, please visit any of the fine content purveyors in the right-hand column of the home page.

Gimme your wallet–or else the forest here gets it

NI logoThe Obama administration this week released a 196-page plain-language report that describes predicted future impacts of climate change on the U.S. The report comes during a week of inconclusive negotiation among key House lawmakers on climate legislation, and as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passes what could be the third energy bill in four years. “Green jobs” start to wear a human face.

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States documents predictions and changes already observed in the U.S. and around the world, including higher temperatures, “reduced frost days, increased frequency and intensity of heavy downpours, a rise in sea level, and reduced snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice.” Many concerns come down to the idea that people are predicted to find themselves living in the wrong place. “It is difficult and expensive to alter or replace infrastructure designed to last for decades (such as buildings, bridges, roads, airports, reservoirs, and ports) in response to continuous and/or abrupt climate change,” the report states.

The Guardian reports that a San Francisco media consultancy oversaw release of the report. The document is “scrubbed of the usual scientific jargon,” and its release is timed to support the climate bill in the House. That the White House had outside media help on a major climate report might be seen either as a crutch or as a breakthrough. Either way, many scientists have long had a disadvantage in communicating their work and findings, in part because professional standards and practices differ rather wildly from both traditional media and what might be called “normal” human interpersonal communication. Science talk — climate-science talk notoriously — is marked by circumspection, caveats, technical descriptions of physical evidence, and statistical and probabilistic mathematics. Efforts are underway to humanize public climate communication, including the fruits of behavioral research and a recent deep dive into how each of the “Six Americas” [pdf] understand climate change.

In Europe, the climate may already be morphing along two paths. The European Union body charged with protecting the Alps released its second report, documenting bifurcation in the climate of Europe. North of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, Europeans are seeing more flooding and mud slides. Southeastern Alpine communities report a drop in rainfall — 10 percent over the last century. Marco Onida, head of the Alpine body: “The Alps are the water tower of Europe. But increasingly much of the water is not reaching the places downstream where it is needed, for ecosystems, agriculture and energy production.”

What we talk about when we talk about climate: The NYT Magazine lays bare the device — of climate change and many other issues — with the day-glo orange headline “INFRASTRUCTURE!* (*It’s more exciting than you think, actually).” The stories have nothing to do with climate change, save a few references to post-Kyoto Paris. But focusing attention to inspiring, high-functioning replacements for decaying infrastructure would serve a number of issues. Every week, the climate press tries to do more subtly what the NYT hit directly last weekend. “Rebuilding infrastructure” might be one way to organize many of the most consequential story trends of the day — if there were a nicer word for it. As the White House science assessment suggests, climate change might leave much of our current infrastructure might in the wrong place.

Infrastructure change can be local and quiet. The governor of Kolkata, India, undertook an energy-savings program at his 27-acre residence, formerly the seat of the British Empire in India. The actions cut the government’s electricity bill by 15 percent and CO2 emissions from electricity by 18 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the reductions came from behavioral change. Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi told the Times of India that his grandfather–Mahatma Gandhi–spoke frequently and at length about proper levels of consumption.

Infrastructure change can also be both monumental — and an experiment. The Wall Street Journal takes on “geo-engineering” — cooling the atmosphere through large-scale projects, such as the release of reflective sulfate aerosols, cloud farming, or Climate Post suggests, ask the artist Christo to wrap the poles in reflective Mylar. The Washington Post runs a geo-engineering op-ed by Samuel Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute, also pegged to a National Academy of Sciences conference on the subject.

Personal and community efforts, geo-engineering projects, and even national laws in and of themselves will not prevent dangerous manmade warming, but all of them, aggregated, would be powerful, according to number-crunching (and Chinese Politburo satire) at the Green Grok.

Can’t see the forest through the hyperlinks: Many people familiar with climate change know that deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of the increase in greenhouse gases. Major media have shown increased interest in deforestation’s contribution to global warming, particularly efforts to fund rainforest conservation through global carbon credit markets. A recent New York Times editorial supported  inclusion of forest measures left out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Economist looks seriously and critically at the issue, pointing out its promise — keeping forests in tact may be the simplest way to reduce greenhouse gases — and its difficulty — the world community’s interest in saving rainforests conflicts with local economic incentives. [The Nicholas Institute just published a comprehensive package explaining the issues, options, and economics for global forest efforts.]

The rainforest story this week stretches from pristine Cameroon ecosystems to global financial centers. Mongabay learns that a 3,200-sq. mi. Cameroon rainforest will be gutted in 30 days for logging and iron mining, its recently documented population of lowland gorillas, elephants, mandrills, and chimpanzees dislocated and left to die, unless conservationists can find project financing. “We have 30 days,” a conservationist working on the issue said. “It’s a race against time.” (Cameroon to elephants: “Gimme your wallet–or else…”) Large British investment houses are throwing their support behind greater disclosure in financial documents of firms’ roles in deforestation, Reuters reports. The Forest Footprint Disclosure Project is designed to encourage Fortune 500 companies to account for increasing financial risks associated with reducing forest cover. A Financial Times blog post explains forests’ plight in the context of what you had for breakfast.

Two men who have never met: Two stories this week together demonstrate what might be called the climate gap, or the difference in comfort levels with climate science that scientists and observers have and, well, most everyone else. A NYT overview of the synthesis report concludes with Michael MacCracken, a lead author of the previous U.S. assessment and adviser to the current one, saying, “There is not much that is new.” Yet this piece from the Deseret News suggests that scientific assessments are far from universally read and accepted. Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert tells a Western Governors Association panel, “I’ve heard people argue on both sides of the issue, people I have a high regard for. People say man’s impact is minimal, if at all, so it appears to me the science is not necessarily conclusive… What are we doing to bring people together? Is there a hidden agenda out there? Help me understand the science.”

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

An eye-popping thrill ride!

NI logoFor those mercifully far enough away not to know, the “Capital beltway”  is a looping highway, Interstate 495, the way many metro Washington residents ride to work. “Inside the beltway” isn’t coincident with Washington, DC. It also connotes a mythical place unrestrained by geography, a state of mind where consequential details of legislation attract and hold attention, sometimes for years on end. Whether you work inside or outside the beltway determines whether you think there was climate news this week in the capital, and by extension, Bonn.

Insider baseball: Reps. Henry Waxman  (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee chairmen who authored the climate bill now moving through the House, spent the week explaining the 900-plus-page draft to colleagues. At this writing, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) just began an agriculture committee hearing into how the bill might affect rural communities. Peterson and more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress threaten to hold their support from the bill unless Waxman and Markey address their concerns about equitable treatment of farmers. Republicans introduced an energy bill in the House Wednesday that emphasizes nuclear power and would set as a target the construction of 100 new reactors over the next two decades, 100 more than the U.S. has built in three decades.

Talks in Beijing between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters, China and the U.S., overshadowed international negotiators in Bonn, who are wrapping up two weeks of United Nations-guided talks, according to the Economist.

Climate chatterers have ample material with which to choose how to think about developments in China. That’s not because the ideology behind different publications support different facts — although that does happen with greater frequency in the U.S. media. It’s because there are so many facts coming out of China, it’s hard to keep track of all the  trends. Here are two.  The Guardian buttonholes a national development officer who boasts that by 2020 China will produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources — on par with Europe. That’s not mutually exclusive with the continued rise in Chinese coal use — 1.8 percent higher in 2008 than in 2007, according to Bloomberg. A lively debate continues in scientific and policy circles about whether the rise of coal use in China is significantly reversing a three-decade long global decline in the carbon-intensity of industrial fuels.

“Outsider” baseball: Without a simple beltway story unifying the news, media coverage becomes a patchwork of simultaneous episodes in the climate saga. Disinterested observers might wish for a national or international climate regime, not because they care about a particular approach, but because it might help impose one central storyline on the whole climate space, its politics, policy, business, and science (Sort of the way that some argue for a national climate policy to  unify efforts in California, the Northeast, and the West).

Instead, this week stories play out in the Midwest and U.K., in Texas and China, as many people around the world confront the climate challenge locally. Two stories from Hawaii beg the question, why does this matter to anyone else? By any traditional standard, they don’t. Some 50,000 people on Oahu have been given rebates for solar water heating systems that are expected to cut fossil-fuel bills significantly. On Maui, a German-born entrepreneur is pushing the state’s utility regulator to adopt what’s called inside the beltway a “feed-in tariff,” a law that would offer homes powered by renewable electricity a fixed price per kilowatt, over a 20-year contract and guarantee a connection to the grid so homes and businesses can send electricity into the network. This nano-scale Hawaiian news suggests that forces other than politics are shaping energy transformation on the margins. A beltway insider recently suggested to Climate Post that climate legislation is having its make-or-break moment in Congress, and if it fails will vanish after that — poof! This week’s global headlines suggest that the potential for new-energy entrepreneurship — and, on the downside, risk of catastrophic climate change — will ploddingly change behavior.

Tilting at exploration platforms: Fights over wind power are a common trend this week in the Midwest. Chicago private and civic leaders fear that a national carbon regime is likely to raise electricity prices in the region, but is also likely to ignite the rust belt’s economic renewal. Midwest governors received a report commissioned in 2007 charting a cap-and-trade program to help six states reduce their emissions. Wisconsin is emblematic of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back success of wind power in the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Confusion about what to do isn’t limited to the Midwest, where this week’s reports document conflicts within neighborhoods and between interest groups. Greenwire catches a Monmouth University poll suggesting that individuals are conflicted within about energy issues: The number of Mid-Atlantic residents who support offshore drilling rose from 33 percent to 46 percent in two years. More than 80 percent support offshore wind farms if they can’t be seen from land — and 67 percent do if they are visible.

Whither wind? Scientists cited in an AP story suggest that average wind speeds across the U.S. might be slowing. Roger Pielke Jr. takes a bite out of the finding at over at Prometheus, and Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann parse the question at Real Climate.

The eclectic physicist Freeman Dyson has garnered increased attention in the last couple of years for his skeptical thinking about global warming, in a New York Review of Books essay, a New York Times Magazine cover story, and this week an interview with Yale e360. In the latter piece, Dyson provides abundant caveats for his views, namely that he doesn’t know “technical facts.”  Dyson’s general attacks on computer modeling studies of climate change exclude the “preponderance of  evidence,” physical evidence, that suggest big changes are afoot.

Prefer glazed donuts, please: When a proposed law as consequential as the climate bill (few are more consequential) passes through a major committee en route to the House floor, prominent commentators forge new opinions in real time. When mainstream thinkers take on previously cloistered policy, it’s a good time for both communities to take notes. Take newly minted Pulitzer columnist Eugene Robinson‘s Washington Post column about so-called clean coal technology. He introduces the topic with this sentence:

The plan is to meet ambitious targets for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases through development and widespread use of an unproven technology known as — prepare for your eyes to glaze over — carbon capture and storage. [Emphasis added.]

Hawaiian solar water heaters, Ohio street dirt and “pulp liquor,carbon capture and storage, and Mississipi Delta bamboo industry expansion (it exists) might not qualify as an eye-popping thrill ride, but it appears to be the ride we’re on.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Insitute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat

Bonn Voyage!

NI logoThe U.S. Congress fast-tracks climate legislation, international negotiators hash through the first “negotiating text” for year-end global talks in Germany, and big businesses start counting their carbon. The pile of climate stories this week climbed faster than predicted New England sea levels.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act – aka Waxman-Markey, aka ACES, aka H.R. 2454 – may reach the House floor by the July 4th recess, if Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new legislative push proceeds as she intends. She has charged the eight committees evaluating the legislation to complete their work by June 19, which may be a particular challenge for Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D – N.Y.) and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who have the most work to do on it. Chairman Peterson has said the bill deserves a close look to make sure the farm community is treated equitably.

Events on the Hill will shape the world’s reactions to White House policy at the COP15 climate change conference in December. In preparation, negotiators this week and next descend on Bonn, Germany, where nations have their first opportunity to react to the United Nations’ negotiating text, released last month. Diplomacy efforts continue to step up, in Bonn and elsewhere, with U.S. Special envoy on climate change Todd Stern visiting Beijing next week.

“How green is Obama, really?” asks Silicon India, in the headline to this short Indo-Asian News Service piece. It’s a sign of the times that international wire services are covering the U.S. Congress. But their readers will miss the magnitude of Congress’ task by offering as straight reporting judgments such as this: “[A] reluctant U.S. Congress is resisting even moderate cap-and-trade goals.” From inside-the-beltway, objectively speaking, things are moving quite rapidly for such a complex endeavor, however its goals are characterized.

With the climate bill out of its key committee, several newspapers stepped back recently and offered short explainers on a “cap-and-trade” climate system (the Wall Street Journal, McClatchy newspapers, the Financial Times). The Washington Post offered a fine effort that contains an interesting example of how space limitations in the news-article format can further muddle an already complex subject. Take this passage, about the potential per capita costs of the climate bill:

The EPA thinks it will fall between $98 and $140 per year, causing barely a stutter in the U.S. economy as a whole.

The Union of Concerned Scientists thinks the system will actually make money for families, since more efficient technologies will save on energy costs. But the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks it will cost big: $4,300 per family in a few decades.

This quick triptych suggests that three organizations looked at the same legislation in the same way and deduced a range of outcomes when in fact they were responding to varied legislative scenarios. The risk in presenting the material this way is that they have actually conducted different studies, with different initial assumptions, and that juxtaposing them so quickly adds distortion to simplicity. A broad Economist narrative of the U.S. climate debate cites only a Congressional Budget Office estimate, and glibly concludes, “If politicians pretend they can save the planet at no cost, they risk a backlash when people realize they were fibbing.”

Reduced carbonation?: Finding your carbon and reducing it is becoming the next big quest for big business. The Economist article, “A Green Revolution,” appears in a large section about rebuilding American business, a topic that won’t go away any time soon. The U.N. observes that in 2008, for the first time ever, clean tech drew more investment than fossil fuel power generation globally. Nearly six percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from 417 large companies – a percentage that many firms are trying to reduce their contributions to, BusinessWeek reports in a special package about carbon accounting. Coca-Cola officials assumed the company’s biggest contributions came from its truck fleet. But that’s before they discovered greenhouse-gas-rich refrigerants and electricity-hungry vending machines are responsible for five times more than its transport: 15 million metric tons of CO2 a year. “If we had never put pencil to paper and done the calculations, we might not have understood it ourselves – or believed it,” one official said.

The New York Times, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times also mark the launch of Hara, a new software start-up that helps companies, including Coca-Cola, track and reduce their emissions. Backed by the leading venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins (Al Gore sits on its board), Hara is the newest of several young companies offering large firms a step-up from the spreadsheets that have marked many carbon-reduction efforts to date.

Did everyone get the memo? A recent Gartner survey of 575 companies found that 13.6 percent of the firms didn’t know whether they had carbon management systems in place.

Drops to drink?: Two days before President Barack Obama deliver his major address about Middle East peace in Egypt, a Canadian non-profit issued a report highlighting concerns that climate change could exacerbate security threats in the embattled region. Already, AFP reports, drought forced 160 Syrian villages to relocate to cities in 2007-8. “Climate change could hold serious implications for regional security,” the report’s authors write.

The world’s rivers may already bear the marks of climate change, according to a new study in Environmental Science and Technology. Scientists assembled streamflow data, taken as far downstream as possible, from 925 rivers on all continents except Antarctica. The authors compared the data to a climate model and concluded that direct human effects on rivers (ie, drawing water from them) is small when compared with climate change from 1948-2004. Water levels dropped anywhere from 3 to 14 percent in some major rivers flowing into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Mississippi and some other rivers saw increased flow, as the result of changing rain and snow patterns. Empirical studies such as this can add gravity to even unrelated calls of concern. Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told a group in New York last month that warming means increased drought, desertification, and land degradation in her country.

Many unanswered questions… except that one: The Calgary Herald offers the most outdated story of the week, a run through the ideas of a visiting Israeli chemist. The story itself is of less concern (time being what it is) than the lede, which reads:

As the world continues to grapple with the issue of climate change, one question remains unanswered: Is global warming the result of human behaviour or is it part of a heating and cooling cycle that has gone on for millennia?

And it’s the absence of an answer to this question that is going to continue to bedevil industry and government alike for the foreseeable future.

In fact, global warming is largely the result of human behavior. IPCC scientists have said that there are nine chances out of 10 that greenhouse gases have caused global warming observed in the past 50 years. And they elaborated on these causes in a full chapter (pdf here) of its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report. But what these studies translate to for practical purposes is, yes, fossil-fuel powered industry and deforestation are the significant causes of global warming. “Industry and government alike” are “bedeviled by questions for the foreseeable future,” but these bedeviling questions instead concern, for example, the rate of ice melt in Greenland, how to transform the energy system, predicted drought in the American Southwest, and as the article does indicate, if carbon capture and storage will work on a global scale. It’s just one sign of the complexity of climate change that the simplest question – What’s going on?! – still eludes many well-meaning people who are simply trying to explain it.

–Eric Roston