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.