The 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.