Maybe It’s All in Your Head

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First Things First: At the risk of stating something innocuous that sounds controversial, coal, natural gas, and man-made refrigerant chemicals never did anything to anyone. Oil just sat there for (in some cases) 50 million years. Water vapor is just as happy in lakes and aquifers as in the atmosphere. People burning them, releasing them, or letting them evaporate causes the problem. If you accept these observations as fact, then perhaps Pogo was right: Our behavior matters.

Key climate insights have emerged over the last few years, as neuroscientists, anthropologists, behaviorists, and legions of other -ologists, have peered under our thinking caps and traded hypotheses on what’s going on inside. This week the American Psychological Association dropped a draft, 225-page (double-spaced!) report on how that community can study, educate, and inform climate issues [pdf]. Nature Reports: Climate Change puts the human element on its cover this month, positing, in the words of University of Minnesota’s Jeffrey Broadbent, that climate change’s “only solution lies in a level of global cooperation that humanity has never seen before.” The report explores themes raised less comprehensively, though more memorably, before, as in Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s provocative essay from a couple of years ago.

As the report, Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009, stated earlier this year, different populations understand climate change in discernible ways. And that’s true of nations, too. The University of Maryland’s just turned in some thought-provoking results: In the U.S., political leadership tugs at a generally ambivalent population, but in India, public interest in climate policy might be greater than what leadership can bear. Disagreement over climate change can be traced to core beliefs about the world. Scientific American runs a short piece identifying four main beliefs many people maintain about nature. [For longer treatment see previously linked articles from the New York Times and Seed magazine.]

Capitol Ideas: No where is behavior and thought (or some facsimile thereof) more scrutinized these days than in Washington.

The Democratic health care initiative may overwhelm Senate efforts to pass a climate change bill before the Copenhagen talks at the end of the year, Politico reports. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, has indicated his panel will weigh in on the distribution of emission allowances in the carbon market. Baucus is also the lead negotiator on health care legislation. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Mont.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and key Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), are both also deeply involved in the health care debate. Oddly for a Senate story, the first prominent quotation in the story comes from a senior House figure, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He says of health care, “The reality is [it] is going to happen before cap and trade.” Even so, interest groups have already positioned themselves to speak to a climate bill that still needs to be written.

Some supporters of a Senate bill are rolling out the risks climate change poses to national security, echoed by renewed interest in the Navy to study that topic.

The Charlottesville Daily Progress broke news of a political scandal, in which a lobbyist or lobbyists at Bonner & Associates sent to Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) fake letters made to look like they came from a local NAACP chapter and the Hispanic network Creciendo Juntos. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, announced his panel would investigate the matter. By mid-week, the number of fake letters found grew to a dozen, sent also to Reps. Chris Carney (D-Penn.) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Penn.). The American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy and the Hawthorn Group, which had both hired Bonner & Associates, denounced them. The episode spotlights what has become known in Washington as an “astroturfing“–an inorganic political push manufactured to look like a grassroots initiative.

Eternal Questions, Part MCMLXIV, “At What Cost?“: The Energy Information Administration reviewed the climate bill passed in June by the U.S. House of Representatives, and found its costs largely in line with projections run by the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency. The report, here, projects that by 2020, household energy costs could rise by $114 and a gallon of gas could jump 20 cents. These studies tend not to quantify benefits of legislation, because it is difficult to estimate the savings from maintaining the climate that enabled modernity to emerge.

Nicholas Institute colleagues shed light in a new Policy Brief on a common question for any major legislation: “Who will be regulated?” The House bill would cover a small percentage of emitters, but in so doing encompass the overwhelming majority of U.S. emissions. About 1.3 percent of 350,075 manufacturing facilities might qualify for regulation–and that would cover 82.5 percent of the industry’s emissions [pdf].

Slouching Towards Copenhagen: The international conversation continues apace, with negotiators meeting this week in Bonn inching toward a still foggy potential agreement at the COP-15 climate conference in Copenhagen. China’s lead negotiator, Yu Qingtai, beaned developed nations for not setting or fulfilling emissions targets, even as he emphasized his optimism for a global deal. Yvo De Boer, the U.N.’s climate chief, shared with a Pacific islands conference his increasing concern that the year is ticking by without demonstrable progress. An AFP photographer demonstrates the all-too-common practice of photographing world leaders against a backdrop of circular institutional logos as in saint iconography.

Taking the Car out of “Carbon” (or vice versa…): Two leading voices of American business–venture capital giant John Doerr and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt–unite on the Washington Post op-ed page to warn of the crisis in the U.S. energy sector. It has fallen behind China, a nation “which understands the importance of controlling its energy future.” The U.S. by implication lacks such an understanding. They put forth a five-point plan to boost U.S. energy innovation, to address, for example, China and India eating America’s lunch on solar. Doerr and Immelt are not writing in a vacuum, as some industries and trade groups are already rallying for trade measures that would encourage rule-based global green trade.

Congress had set aside $1 billion to fund a “cash-for-clunkers” program, in which Americans can turn in their inefficient cars and receive a break toward ones with better gas mileage. The hugely popular program needs an emergency tranche of funding to meet continued demand. The Associated Press crunches numbers and concluded that the program is not making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions: The program is an expensive way to save just one hour’s worth of emissions from the U.S. economy. President Barack Obama returned to beleaguered northern Indiana this week to launch a $2.4 billion initiative to populate roads with electric cars.

Debate over nuclear power has long been so controversial that the word “radioactive” is a commonly used adjective affixed to politically complicated subjects. The question of nuclear power plant safety continues to rile critics. Increasingly, the economics of nuclear power eclipse the traditional safety debate. The WSJ‘s “Environmental Capital” spots developments in Italy, which has shunned nuclear power since Chernobyl but now hopes to build four reactors much more cheaply than any plan discussed in the U.S.

“In a Word, ‘Good.’ In Two Words, ‘Not Good.'”: The Christian Science Monitor catches the grim moment in an otherwise upbeat story. Science magazine last week published research showing that efforts to help marine ecosystems recover from decades or centuries of exploitation are paying off. Most fish stocks around the world still need much support, but marked improvement abounds. That is, absent significant changes in marine chemistry brought about by changing atmospheric chemistry. The absorption of carbon dioxide makes the oceans less alkaline (or more acidic). This change can disrupt biological processes of pivotal shell-making organisms, corals, and others (See this subs. req. New Yorker piece). One of the study’s lead authors told the now Web-only newspaper: “All bets are off with climate change, particularly ocean acidification.”

If you feel confused about how to respond appropriately–studies show–you’re not alone.

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.