Big Hopes for Al G.

NI logoFirst Things First: The trouble with electricity is that you can’t seal the unused portion when you’re done using it and put it on a shelf. The New York Times explores one potential industry in the “green jobs” archipelago trying to change that, filing a piece from industrial-belt poster-city Allentown, Penn.  International Battery is developing a cereal-box-size battery that could help remake the energy economy by making electricity able to be stored with ease and scale as never before. The company and more than 120 others are vying for $2 billion in grants the Department of Energy will dole out to seed a U.S. industry for electric-car batteries.

Another strategy to save electricity for later, beyond batteries, is to not generate it until later. The U.S. might reduce its 2020 energy use by 23 percent with a comprehensive–and well-executed–program to burn less and harness more from what we do burn. That’s the conclusion of a major McKinsey report that analyzes and models integrated energy efficiency planning among local, state, and federal governments, and public and private entities. Forty percent of the savings would fall in the industrial sector, with 35 percent in homes, and the balance in the commercial sector. The net savings from identified actions comes to $600 million in the next decade in the McKinsey scenarios.

Energy efficiency is frequently referred to as “low-hanging fruit,” or the “fifth fuel” for electricity, after coal, natural gas, nuclear, and the various renewables. Amory Lovins, the energy strategist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is no stranger to energy efficiency. His 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” [pdf] called for “a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy.” The essay was immediately recognized as a maddening disruption (some people liked it and some hated it). This week Lovins and two co-writers call for a new manufacturing paradigm, akin to the shift during World War II, in which Detroit dropped car-making and went into the tank business. Lovins et al write in their recently acquired roles, shared with all American taxpayers, as co-owners of General Motors.

Here’s an idea, possibly the next step in the history of “cap-and-trade.” To reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, the federal government sets a maximum number of miles Americans can drive every year, a cap that declines over time. Drivers who exceed their cap any year must buy mile credits from less traveled compatriots. Okay, it’s a bad idea, and one unconsidered by federal agencies, NGOs, and industry groups who built scenarios for halving U.S. transportation emissions by 2050. The report, Moving Cooler, was put out by the Urban Land Institute, and overseen by a group assembled from government, business, and NGOs.Reduced speed limits, land-use change, and tweaking travel behavior might bring a 24 percent drop. The changes that would bring those reductions toward 50 percent include “pay-as-you-go” auto insurance and per-mile driving fees.

The Feel Good Hit of the Summer: The U.S. and China held an upbeat summit in Washington, which resulted in a signed memorandum that lays out how the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters can work together more closely on climate change and clean energy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the talks reinforced the centrality of climate change to the two nations’ relationship. President Barack Obama opened the two-day event, noting that “neither of us profits from a growing dependence on foreign oil, nor can we spare our people from the ravages of climate change unless we cooperate.” This builds on previous memoranda of understanding, including the recent agreement to invest together in research into carbon capture and storage (CCS), or trapping CO2 from a coal-plant chimney and pumping it underground for the eons.

The House climate bill would dangle billions of dollars in incentives before coal-burning power plant operators, encouraging them to seek and deploy CCS technology. The government would reward carbon pioneers by making the first 6 gigawatts of stored emissions eligible for allowances worth up to $90 a ton, more than three times the price tag the EPA has projected for a high-end carbon price.

The Guardian teases out the conflict in this tale from Spremberg, Germany, where Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has built a $100 carbon capture and storage facility. Residents nearby the Schwarze Pumpe project are skeptical, apparently, of living atop a reservoir of carbon dioxide. “It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” a Vattenfall official said. The European Union would like to build as many as a dozen such plants by 2015.

A Meaty Issue: The many issues touched by climate change cut close to something very close to the American heart: the American stomach. The Washington Post‘s “Food and Dining” section riles carnivores in this piece that recites the litany of obvious reasons why mass consumption of red meat fuels climate change. Ezra Klein cites a 3.5-year-old University of Chicago study that estimates a vegan diet prevents more emissions than trading in an inefficient car for a Toyota Prius [pdf].  The problem: “Telling people to give up burgers doesn’t poll well.”

Why We Have Satellite Monitoring: Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk is two months into a six-month stint on the International Space Station. On Sunday, he reported a personal observation that glaciers are melting. “Most of the time when I look out the window I’m in awe. But there are some effects of the human destruction of the Earth as well. “This is probably just a perception, but I just have the feeling that the glaciers are melting, the snow capping the mountains is less than it was 12 years ago when I saw it last time,” Thrisk said. “That saddens me a little bit.”

Many eyes in the climate sciences now turn north this time every year, to watch the Earth’s Arctic ice cap dissolve into the sea. The National Snow and Ice Data Center writes updates on Arctic sea ice extent, usually the first week of the month. They’ve interrupted regular programming to note that this year sea ice is shrinking faster than in 2008, the second deepest melt, but still slower than in 2007, when the ice cap reached its lowest documented extent.

Congressional action on climate change has increased public attention to all aspects of debate, even in matters where most key scientists have high confidence in observations, such as whether climate change is happening, given temperature records of the past decade. This week came news that the global seas have set a heat record, warming to 0.59 degrees C above the 20th century average of 16.4 degrees C (about 62 degrees F). But it’s the air temperature that has received much (or, depending on your perspective, too little) scrutiny in the press and blogs. For further clarification, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration included a sidebar clarifying the matter, “Do global temperature trends over the last decade falsify climate predictions?” The passage can be found on pages 23-24 of this report pdf.

The Second “Al G.”: How’s this for a headline, from Technology Review: “A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels.” This week Joule Biotechnologies, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., unveiled its process for harvesting 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of souped-up algae. The lede reveals, “If this yield proves realistic, it could make it practical to replace all fossil fuels used for transportation with biofuels.” That’s a big if. The company has raised “substantially less than $50 million,” some of it from employees. The challenges are formidable. Algae populations can grow too fast and expire before their work is done. And the bioreactors themselves can be too expensive for their fuels to pay off (Unless gas prices spike and don’t fall again). The company hopes to start building a commercial scale plant in 2011. This technology is most interesting and most welcome, but be cautious about messianic stories about start-ups looking for VC funding.

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.

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

NI logoFirst Things First: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India last weekend to inch forward collaboration on regional security, global business, nuclear power, and climate change. U.S. papers played up the real-time meltdown between Clinton and Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

The two appeared before cameras on a trip to a new, energy-efficient office building in New Delhi, a scene in which Ramesh excoriated Western pressure on India to reduce emissions: “If this pressure is not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours”–a reference to a trade provision in the climate bill narrowly voted out of the House of Representatives last month. The New York Times and the Washington Post note the eyebrows raised by U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern, who traveled with Clinton. The Times of India apparently headlined a story, “Climate man’s visit shocks India.” Indian leaders say they will not accept legally binding carbon cuts, unless the nation’s per capita emissions reach that of the West, an argument analyzed in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. Spending to put India on a low-carbon trajectory might run $7 billion to $12 trillion in 35 years, according to a projection by The Energy and Resources Institute.

Mean temperatures in India have risen by 0.52 degrees Celsius over the last century, lower than the roughly 0.78 degree global average rise (The Earth is warming faster at the poles than at the equator).

“The single biggest investment opportunity of the 21st century”: India’s private sector increasingly sees value in “clean tech.” Witness Reva Electric Car’s plans to mass produce $12,000 electric vehicles for sale in the West. Ajit Nazre, the KPCB partner in charge of India investments, gave an overview of trends there to VC Circle, which follows the venture capital community in India. Nazre, who laud clean tech in the quotation atop this paragraph, recounts the motivations for change there, which are far from unique: the worldwide discussion about mitigating against dangerous climate change; fossil fuel price volatility; clean tech entrepreneurship. Add to that mix, India is home to one-third of the world’s poor, in desperate need of electricity.

Cities cover two percent of humans’ land footprint–but are responsible for three-quarters of emissions. The Secretary of State isn’t the only Clinton interested in India. The Clinton Global Initiative, run by the former President, has teamed up with Microsoft to provide Indian cities with a free, Web-based tool, called Project 2 Degrees, to monitor their greenhouse gas emissions.

Attention to “geo-engineering” has grown in legitimacy this year, and research investment ideas range from the simple and mundane to the beautifully illustrated. The American Meteorological Society gave its (meticulously worded) blessing for research into re-engineering the global climate. Ideas abound. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu elaborated on why the world should paint its roofs white, in a TV interview with what a poll of dubious trustworthiness calls “the most trusted newscaster in America.” Scientists and engineers speculate on the effectiveness of shooting disks into strategic position between the Earth and Sun, to block light.

Many of 21st century big investments will be small steps, and unfortunately difficult for media to recklessly dramaticize. Climate change begins at home, according to a British report on energy inefficiency in the U.K. Such mundane “climate solutions” as installing replacement pipes and water-saving faucets could reduce the carbon emissions from water heating by 30 percent. Why aren’t home-improvement experts in the forefront of lobbying in every national capital?

All Politics Is Vocal: International preparations for the Copenhagen talks step up, as U.S. senators prepare to step out for their August recess.

Some observers are more sanguine than others about the prospects of an international climate agreement this year. Hopeful is the chairman of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Michael Zammit. AFP files a brief interview with Zammit, who says he is emboldened by the new U.S. administration’s shift in climate policy. Note the last line, which makes this report a textbook example of how to bury the lede. Also upbeat, sort of, is tiny Tuvalu, which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2020.

The U.S. Senate will come back to a hyper-busy fall schedule, with Barbara Boxer expected to introduce the climate bill around Sept. 8 and the nation groping its way through the health care debate. Battle lines are growing firmer.  The NYT suggests in an editorial that the Senate close two loopholes in the House bill, one that grandfathers existing power plants out of the Clean Air Act, and another that, the paper says, weakens offsets. Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggested that climate legislation have an “off-ramp,” should regulations become too onerous for the economy; the administration stepped up its arguments for how farmers will thrive under a climate program.

California farmers have a bright future, according to a new report by the Pacific Institute, which DotEarth takes to task for not taking political realities into account, particularly amid predicted droughts in the West.

Will-ing Won’t Make It So: If a rank-and-file reporter–that large mammal species nearly as close to extinction as polar bears–showed the aloofness toward facts displayed by WP columnist George Will now four times this year, he would be asked to clean out his desk. The Post has already printed several corrective responses to Will: an op-ed piece by science journalist Chris Mooney; a letter by Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization; an editorial plausibly inspired by Will’s errors; and a news article–in the Washington Post–that explicitly smacks down his errors on Arctic Sea ice melt. Today, Will’s column pokes fun at the international climate negotiation process, which comes naturally if you believe that atmospheric monitoring is a religious activity. Will doesn’t veer off into fact-checking slumber until the end of the piece, when he cites the scientific reasoning Mark Steyn, a National Review writer who determined that global warming halted in 1998. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, who has swept up after Will all year, turns in this fine response.

Still No Operating Manual: Futurist thinkers, such as R. Buckminster Fuller, laid down ideas for what eventually became the environmental movement, by applying thoughts about space flight to the Earth itself. If three people, say, can fit in a tin can flung at the Moon, as they did 40 years ago this week, how many people can the Earth hold? Writers of all stripes are returning to that basic question.

Politicians and advocates routinely call for an “Apollo program for climate change,” often without evaluating the aptness of the comparison. With Apollo, the federal government was the entrepreneur, inventor, engineer, and customer. That’s a small step compared with the suggested task at hand–slowly reconfiguring a global economy powered largely by fossil fuels, with millions of entrepreneurs and billions of customers. Now, that’s a “mission.” That’ll keep everyone busy. That’d be–if we get there–a giant leap for mankind.

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.

Pools of Oil, Plumes of Gas

NI logoFirst Things First: The Washington-to-Beijing diplomatic shuttle shows no sign of slowing down. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke visited China this week to prod collaboration on clean energy technology. Chu announced the U.S. would contribute $15 million to a partnership that will study how to capture carbon dioxide emissions and trap them underground. The Wall Street Journal‘s “Environmental Capital” blogger Keith Johnson sums up mutual perceptions nicely by citing headlines in his paper (“Chu Warns China on Emissions”) and the China Daily (“Steven Chu: U.S. Ready to Lead on Climate Change”).

The New York Times reports that China is taking the lead on clean energy. The Washington Post surveys business trends there and in other Asian nations, places that “could outpace the programs in Obama’s economic stimulus package or in the House climate bill.” A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory official agrees that the U.S. is already left behind in some areas. And the number of U.S. “green jobs” is on the uptick–thanks to enterprising foreign firms.

The U.S. energy industry delivered a surprise this week. Exxon announced a plan to spend $600 million on research into fuel manufactured from algae. These simple plants, which include pond scum and seaweed, are a darling of many scientists and venture capital firms. Exxon’s investment further boosts the fortunes of maverick scientist Craig Venter, whose Synthetic Genomics is a partner in the project. Just a few years ago, Exxon’s previous CEO called ethanol “moonshine,” denigrating such projects, although it should be pointed out that moonshine is largely ethanol.

Count your carbs, count your carbon: Sweden assumed the presidency of the European Union earlier this month. The nation has had a carbon tax since the early 1990s, and continues to take the climate initiative, which now extends to food labeling.

With food or anything else, counting carbs is tricky business. Every facet of the climate story this week demonstrates why. In perhaps the most direct example, the Securities and Exchange Commission will take “a very serious look” at if or how to mandate that publicly traded companies disclose their climate risks.

Elsewhere, economic modeling spats continue. In California, small-business groups funded a study that suggests that, uh, small businesses will lose more than $180 billion in output –10 percent of the total–as a result of the state’s climate law. The California Air Resources Board says the study posits the climate law would bring no savings from increased efficiency or benefits from innovation and entrepreneurship, a supposition that “contradicts the track record of three decades” of state history.

Scientists are in the profession of keeping other scientists honest, theoretically. Computer simulations are such an easy activity to squawk at, scientists themselves do, in the most rarefied places, when they see less-than-rigorous studies published. As commentary on niche modeling, Nature publishes this paper that simulates the effects of climate change on Bigfoot habitats in North America.

The Washington Post runs another op-ed that pretends that climate change does not exist. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pens this op-ed. She writes, “Westerners literally sit on mountains of oil and gas.” Climate Post usually thinks of mountains as solid, oil as liquid, and gas as gas. The latter two phases of matter seem harder to sit on.

Palin quotes Warren Buffett, the famed investor, describing predicted burdens the bill will have on low-income Americans. Buffett himself comes under scrutiny elsewhere. Bloomberg Columnist Eric Pooley untangles the assumptions in Buffett’s statements and those of David Sokol, chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

The next day, the WP ran an editorial supportive of the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, last week, possibly to balance the decision to run Palin’s op-ed the day before.  Guardian columnist, and now backseat economist, George Monbiot takes a calculator to the aspirational agreements struck last week among G8 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and prevent more than two degrees C of warming. The developed world would meet their targets in part by offsetting their emissions with credits generated by projects in the developing world. To generate enough offset credits, Monbiot calculates, developing nations would have to reduce their emissions by 125 percent.

Climate legislation allows regulated firms to meet their carbon caps by “offsetting” emissions–buying pollution credits generated by (mostly) forestry and agriculture projects. A comprehensive Greenwire article places offsets within the wider context of how markets can find efficient ways to protect ecosystem services–the many natural processes that clean water, or air, shuttle nutrients about, or cool the climate. Two Nicholas Institute colleagues are cited in the piece.

Summer Days:Exceptional drought” sears central and southern Texas, draining crops and straining herds. Just one of 12 boat ramps at Lake Travis, near Austin, can reach water, which is down 40 feet. Plus side: Young children can wade safely in nearby river.

Officials, scientists, and at least one reporter in Macon, Georgia, have read the White House’s June report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which predicts a future of twice as many 90-degree days, with the hottest days 10 degrees hotter than usual. “When I read those numbers, I think about what that means to me and my family and my lifestyle, and that’s a very different picture of the South than what I grew up with,” a Georgia Tech scientist said.

The summer sun has desiccated San Joaquin Valley in California, and the U.S. need only look south to consider the effects of poorly managed water.

Dryness is crippling farming in India’s massive farming sector. Bhopal residents, all 1.8 million of them, are allowed 30 minutes of water every other day, in rationing undertaken in October. Downpours and flooding in Mumbai couldn’t help Mumbai, where officials cut water use by 30 percent given a drop in lake levels.

BBC reports from Char Atra, a beleaguered island in the Ganges, where “hardcore poor” residents cope as they can with natural hydrology. Villagers have rebuilt one woman’s home because last year, “there was so much water in her hut that she had to tie her children to their bed at night to stop them from rolling and drowning.”

Does he still count?: Love him or hate him, leading NASA climatologist James Hansen has become an embattled figure. ClimateWire turns in a thoughtful analysis of just how relevant the grandfather of global warming is or isn’t in his activist period, a skeptical complement to the lighter fare published by the New Yorker recently.

Hansen and Al Gore held a colloquium in Hell, which itself, apparently, has seen a 3.8 degree average temperature rise since 1955. “[O]ccupants of Hell who in 1955 were standing night and day in boiling pitch up to their knees report that, owing to the expansion of pitch at higher temperatures, they now must endure the torment all the way up to mid-thigh, or even higher, during Hell’s warmer seasons,” writes Ian Frazier, a satirist, the New Yorker’s tongue-in-cheek “Shouts and Murmurs column.”

Ewe Betcha

NI logoFirst Things First: Conflicting early reports obscured events at a major international summit in L’Aquila, Italy. The Group of Eight has apparently resolved to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, but disagreed on thorny “mid-term targets,” to be reached by 2020 or so. And key players, such as the United States, have no mandatory climate programs yet to enforce this goal. Unimpressed, China, India, and other developing nations declined to offer their own specific targets. Time is running out before the world convenes end-of-the-year climate talks in Copenhagen, but efforts to salvage some kind of international program continues.

It’s also running out on a longer-term clock, according to scientific recommendations for prompt, aggressive pollution reductions. The G-8 nations acknowledged that warming should not proceed beyond a 2 degree C (3.6 degree F) threshold. That’s the thumbnail mark past which many scientists say positive feedbacks can drive the climate toward truly unpredictable change. (Global average temperatures have risen nearly 0.8 degrees C since record-keeping began; the atmosphere is locked in to another 0.6 degree rise.) The New York Times this morning offers the most cutting assessment of the situation, with developing nations throwing out their proposed goals, but agreeing to make undefined, “meaningful” improvements.

If You Are Reading This, You’re on the List: International climate talks follow guidelines set up in the early 1990s. They divide the world into developed and developing nations and set out different roles for each in addressing the problem. Bridging the rich-poor divide is central to global agreement, which is why the U.S. and China are in such frequent talks (to the European Union’s chagrin).

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishes the sketch of a new paradigm.  Stephen Pacala and colleagues suggest that the worldwide distribution of the top billion or so richest individuals drive national targets. Under this approach, the number of high per-capita emitters in a country would shape its climate goals. The authors–who include Princeton’s Pacala and Robert Socolow of “stabilization wedge” fame–argue that their scheme fairly treats all high-emitting individuals the same, regardless of nationality.

Act II, Scene i: In Washington, the climate debate shifts to the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and others opened hearings. Four top administration officials called for what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu labeled “a new industrial revolution” in “sustainable, clean energy,” including nuclear power — a central goal of Republicans that rankles many on the left. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) said his state’s reliance on coal causes him to take potential price rises into account, a far from unique position among Midwestern Democrats.

Issues potentially fatal to the bill have already risen, in agriculture, international trade, and coal-fired electricity. (Legislators also vote with their own dollars, like anyone else.) EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the panel the U.S. is falling behind other nations in clean-energy investment, a statement buoyed by this New York Times piece about China’s surge in manufacturing wind turbines. At first fast-tracking legislation, Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) EPW Committee will now take up the bill formally after the Senate’s summer recess.

Oh, behave!: A Wall Street Journal profile of Obama’s new regulatory chief, Cass Sunstein, is a good foray into behavioral economics, a favorite topic of this White House. Sunstein, the bestselling co-author of Nudge and Harvard law professor, is waiting Senate confirmation to be head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Behavioral economics upends common assumptions about human rationality and decision-making, and its implications have moved into government. Obama wrote shortly after taking office, “Far more is now known about regulation — not only when it is justified, but also what works and what does not.” Sunstein’s research has led him to skepticism about dominant approaches to confront global warming, an approach balanced elsewhere in the administration.

A 2007 energy efficiency law set new targets for lighting, thought to be a death knell for conventional incandescent bulbs. The power of rules to shape economic behavior was on display in this NYT piece about how the new law accelerated competition to build a better lightbulb. Compact fluorescents, heralded as less expensive and longer-lasting, don’t always work well with dimmers and in some cases contain poisonous amounts of mercury. Light emitting diodes are expensive but becoming competitive because of their long lifetimes. Inventors are shrinking Thomas Edison’s conventional bulb. Still harder might be to convince light bulb manufacturers pre-install energy-efficient bulbs lamps and fixtures to guide consumer choice.

Newspaper Uses “S”-Word: Governments and firms around the nation are addressing complicated energy matters, evident in this (South Carolina) State editorial, aptly headlined, “Everyone must sacrifice on coal plant plan.” A coal-fired generator planned for the Pee Dee River basin is desirable because of the state’s demand for power and “[w]ith power relatively cheap in South Carolina, there’s too little incentive to cut back.” The paper argues that “In the long term, whether this plant is ever built or not, we as a state must develop a multi-pronged approach to energy that includes conservation as well as traditional and new energy sources.”

Tough decisions abound. In Kentucky, two utilities have lowered initial estimates of rate increases. In Montana, officials may succumb to selling off rights to mine rich, untapped coal seams, the Associated Press reports. In Spain, local politics and economics knock heads over an aging nuclear plant.

If Ewe Are Reading This: Evolution and global warming meet in the hills of Scotland. A report in Science this week documents how successive generations of Soay sheep are diminishing in size. With less severe winters, the reproductive advantage accorded larger, “better-insulated” sheep has melted with each early spring. Climate change is thought to be a factor in this population shift. The sheep are not alone. The Times of London describes the intersection of climate change and evolution: “In virtually every population that has been studied in detail, evolutionary changes have been observed.”

Columnist in a Downard Trend: The WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel turns in another breathless climate change column. Climate Post cares not to weigh in about how or if any administration should treat a report in the vein of that submitted by EPA environmental economist Alan Carlin, her column’s subject. But certainly, given the level of (im)precision at which she’s writing, Strassel is factually incorrect to leave uncorrected statements such as, “The analysis noted that global temperatures were on a downward trend.”

Her error is rooted in the tricky subject of climate variability. Climate is very much a net phenomenon, an sum of various “forcings” that each nudge the atmosphere warmer or cooler. It’s a little bit like this: Imagine you are boiling water to make pasta, but need to add another two cups. When you add the cooler tap water, the temperature in the pot drops a bit. But t you would never conclude that the temperature drop indicates the burner isn’t working. Saying that the Earth is cooling is akin to saying that the stovetop water has stopped heating when the extra water is added. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a memo (pdf) clarifying this mistake. With El Nino gaining steam in the Pacific, temperatures for the next two years or so are expected to be warmer than they otherwise would be with “only” global warming.

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.

Has the political climate changed?

NI logoFirst things first: The U.S. House of Representatives last week narrowly voted to overhaul the nation’s energy economy by limiting industrial greenhouse gas emissions, boosting efficiency, and developing renewable electricity sources. The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act would limit, or “cap,” annual pollution and allow industry to buy and sell, or “trade,” credits in a new and tightly regulated commodity market. The vote, 219-212, sends an equivocal message to the Senate, where advocates face an even tougher sell. Eight Republicans voted with the majority and 44 Democrats broke with their party leaders.

To secure votes on complicated bills, legislators have been known to adopt a sort of “trade-and-cap” approach to deal-making. The bill’s sponsors and Democratic leadership traded promises – of emission allowances, regulatory authority, trade protection — for enough yea votes to cap the nays at 217. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, commented on the scale of Democratic horse-trading: “It’s unprecedented, but at least it’s transparent.”

President Barack Obama took the unusual step of inviting in newspaper energy reporters for an on-the-record interview about the House climate bill. Calling the passage “an extraordinary first step” (identically in the ledes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times), Obama criticized a provision that under certain conditions would require the president to levy a tariff on imports from countries that do not regulate their greenhouse gases like the U.S. Trade barriers, he said, would send “a protectionist signal,” at a moment when the U.S. and trading partners are trying to jumpstart the global economy. In a sign of the times, the Washington Post quotes a comment Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made on Twitter.

Representatives had barely vacated the House floor before observers turned their attention to the upper house of Congress, which will begin work on its version of the bill later this month. Twenty senators–led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)–have been meeting weekly to come up with an approach to Senate legislation. With the two top jobs in the executive branch filled by former senators, the White House is expected to play a bigger role in Senate negotiations.

E&E News counts 45 or so U.S. senators who are likely “yes” votes for a climate bill, well short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. Some 23 more have reservations about how the bill would affect their states, particularly Midwestern Democrats.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been at work on an energy efficiency-and-security bill (official summaries here), though it does not have a cap-and-trade element. A climate piece will be taken up beginning July 27 in Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The Energy Outlook blog muses on the possible intersection of these two initiatives.

It’ll help! It’ll hurt!: Beyond the national media, newspaper coverage of the ACES bill stayed close to home, reminiscent of how sports sections give more space to local teams than out-of-town rivals. The Kansas City Business Journal runs a short piece offering a local utility’s warnings about the legislation. The piece cites one private estimate of the bill’s eventual cost per family, $1,050 a year on average — an order of magnitude higher than Congressional budget Office and Environmental Protection Agency analyses. The Sunshine State is struggling simultaneously with the promise of solar power and threats to jobs from increased energy prices.

Lobbying from coal states led to reduced targets for energy from renewable sources in the House bill. The original goal of 25 percent by 2020 fell to 15 percent by the floor vote. Experts in Wyoming ponder where change holds promise and where harm. A short piece earlier in the week in the Casper Star-Tribune provides a snapshot of climate opinion in the U.S.’s coal capital: “[State Rep. Tom Lockhart] acknowledged many in Wyoming still doubt the science of global warming, but said the Legislature came to terms several years ago with the fact that the issue had been decided politically on the national and international level. ‘The political tide has changed and the market has changed,’ Lockhart said.”

The climate bill’s passage evoked to Republicans the Clinton administration’s failed 1993 push for an energy tax (per B.T.U). Some Democratic congressmen lost their seats over the B.T.U. tax in the 1994 Republican rout. The NYT’s Carl Hulse collects some nice details from last week, including Republicans chanting “B.T.U.! B.T.U!” upon passage. He asks, “Has the political climate changed since 1993?”, and tees up climate and energy as a 2010 midterm election issue. Indicative of change in the media climate, the Times’ Andrew Revkin posts this at his DotEarth blog, adding context to Hulse’s informative but narrow political story (Revkin: “There are enormous differences between the two situations and initiatives.”).

Reuters India picks up a Washington datelined story about the House action, suggesting it as a signal to the international community that the U.S. is serious about negotiation. Events in India, however, suggest the feeling is less than mutual. India’s environment minister said this week: “India will not accept any emission-reduction target — period. This is a non-negotiable stand.”

The notion that the U.S. legislation contains potential trade barriers could bring India and Pakistan together. They are in discussion about unifying their international positions on climate change.

Mind the gap: As global warming enters the public domain, business competitiveness has become as significant a driver of behavorial change as climate science, opening a usually harmless “climate gap” in understanding between scientists and virtually everyone else. Business drives PriceWaterhouseCooper’s recent report, Capitalizing on a Climate of Change, which lays out the ever-growing business case for understanding climate change: “Companies in the United States face a major challenge in developing a comprehensive strategy to address climate change because of the lack of a national regulatory framework establishing a set of rules for the reduction of carbon-based emissions.”

The gap is particularly wide for the WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel. She writes about Steve Fielding, an Australian senator who voted against a climate change bill after the Obama administration failed to answer his request to help him better understand climate science. Strassel’s column cheers what she describes as a worldwide surge in climate skepticism. What particular study or element of climate science deserves skepticism is unclear. She writes, “The inconvenient truth is that the earth’s temperatures have flat-lined since 2001, despite growing concentrations of CO2. Peer-reviewed research has debunked doomsday scenarios about the polar ice caps, hurricanes, malaria, extinctions, rising oceans.”  The questions of ice caps, hurricanes, etc. seem more complicated than Strassel allows. Often, the big question is framed as how to evaluate the probability of catastrophic events under large uncertainty.

Michael Jackson, climate metaphor?: Deepak Chopra eulogizes Michael Jackson, who in the days before his death had been working excitedly on a song about “the environment,” loosely inferred by the Telegraph to mean climate change.

As he aged, the eccentric King of Pop built an imaginary fortress to protect himself from mega-stardom. Stripped out of context, a passage on this topic from Chopra’s heartfelt piece sounds like it could pass as commentary about the inability of  a large economy to recognize and adapt to change: “This compromise with reality gradually became unsustainable. He went to strange lengths to preserve it.”

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