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.