Would 1.21 Gigawatts a Day Get Us Back to the Future?

NI logoFirst Things First: Research continues apace to find definitions of “clean tech” and “green jobs” that sound more meaningful than campaign rhetoric. In a new report [pdf], the Pew Charitable Trusts pinned down its working description of “clean energy economy” and analyzed 10 years of jobs data, through the 50 states, looking for trends. Analysts found that clean-economy jobs grew at an annual rate of 9.1 percent, compared with 3.7 percent job growth economy-wide. Growth came in both the white- and blue-collar sectors, including professionals “from scientists and engineers to electricians, machinists and teachers.”

Major legislation, such as a climate bill or the current health care initiative, motivates groups who believe they have the most to gain or lose. Here, that means the extractive industries. About 3,500 people converged on a major Houston theater to rally against anticipated Senate climate change legislation. Many attendees work in the energy industry, and major energy firms and business groups backed the event. Similar rallies are expected in 19 states in the next few weeks. An NGO sneaked around the grounds, concluding the event was a large “company picnic.”

The conversation moves to Washington next month. A career-long interest in environmental issues and climate change, coupled with his mien as a senior statesman in the Senate, make Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) likely to play a consensus-building role in this fall’s climate debate. Bloomberg files an overview of the state of play, leading with former Sen. Tim Wirth’s (D-Colo.) objections to the recent House bill. A new National Academies report takes a close look at what the Capitol, literally, can do about its own internal energy policy.

Negotiators left Bonn, where they held pre-COP-15 talks, without much progress toward a new global agreement. Says Anders Turesson, Sweden’s lead climate negotiator: “What we’re talking about is a profound change of industrial civilization. It would be surprising if there weren’t stumbling blocks.”

Seeking Non-Fox to Guard Henhouse: U.K. officials arrested nine people and charged them with conducting fraudulent international carbon-market trades to evade taxation.

Among the many issues that legislators must confront as they draw up climate policy is the carbon market itself, its rules and oversight. The Economist weighs in on this question, and how insubstantial “activist complaints” are steering the conversation awry. Debate is yielding to pre-legislation positioning. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission is a strong contender to oversee the carbon market and laid another preliminary stake to this claim by looking at activity in a voluntary carbon market, the Chicago Climate Exchange. (Nicholas Institute colleagues several months ago prepared a backgrounder [pdf] on the topic.)

1.21 Gigawatts!: Whatever course legislation and markets do or do not take, certain things are true: Meeting emissions targets are likely to become only more difficult as greenhouse gases accumulate. And what it might take to meet the challenge is rarely talked about, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kirsch writes. His back-of-the-envelope analysis is prompted by this Atlantic piece, in which CalTech’s Nathan Lewis suggests the world needs 13,000 gigawatts of clean energy to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million. That’s one gigawatt a day for the next 25 years, or “[i]f we were to build a large nuclear plant every single day for the next 30 years, that would still not be enough to avert the 450ppm limit,” Kirsch writes. CNET weighs in on how to finance a green tech transformation.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong: Scientists are carefully tracking the illness and death of some ocean ecosystems. Global warming’s “evil twin,” is ocean acidification, a subject lately seeing a steady uptick both publicly and academically. Environmental Science and Technology demonstrates this resurgence with an anecdote from a quadrennial scientific conference about coral reefs. In 2004, acidification was ranked 38th out of 39 threats to reefs. In 2008, “Acidification was mentioned almost everywhere.”  DailyClimate.org reports that it’s becoming a problem more rapidly in the Arctic.

Ocean acidification’s “evil twin,” global warming, is sometimes called “global heating” to convey the potential seriousness of the matter. Climate Central analyzed model projections of heat waves under a “conservative warming scenario” and concluded that by 2050, Augusts could become much hotter, with three times the number of days above 95 degrees and double the number above 100 degrees in many U.S. cities. (For some background on modeling see this, this, or this pdf.)

Oliver Morton notes a report that sulfur pollution from shipping should decrease soon. The International Maritime Organization is reducing its cap on sulfur dioxide from 4.5 percent today, to 0.5 percent in 2020. If successful, the rule could reduce premature deaths from pollution from 87,000 to 46,000 a year, with a downside: Atmospheric sulfur dioxide scatters sunlight and helps “cool” the planet. Removing it has the unintended consequence of incrementally worsening global warming, which is why adding even more sulfur to the atmosphere is an idea taken increasingly seriously as a way to mitigate future warming.

When Unbiased Is Biased: Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy Newspapers turns in a surpassing example of how moneyed-interest groups, in this case the Heartland Institute, can earn much-sought-after column-inches by casting doubt on firm, but complicated science and, even more importantly, on climate risk analysis. The Heartland Institute poo-poos much of climate science and this summer even ran newspaper ads saying that “High levels of carbon dioxide actually benefit wildlife and human health.” (Presumably far below concentrations that cause suffocation.) The article looks at the question, confusing enough to lay people, of how we know the globe is warming if the hottest year to date was 1998.

The highest recorded global temperature average indeed occurred in 1998. The top 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media takes a whack at the issue, too.

The McClatchy piece is not obtuse or even “biased” as far as misguided he-said, she-said reporting goes. But it does allow the Heartland Institute to create debate on grotesque and silly premises. The scientists interviewed by Boyd state the case well enough, but they speak technically and in a way that might lose readers. Which are you likelier to remember:

“It’s entirely possible to have a period as long as a decade or two of cooling superimposed on the long-term warming trend,” said David Easterling, chief of scientific services at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.


[MIT’s Richard Lindzen] calls the case for action against global warming “silly” and “grotesque.”

Climate change is ultimately a story of risk, and how we confront it or don’t. Demonstrating that a problem is occurring can never tell us what, if anything, we should do about it. But a newspaper (company) that won’t directly acknowledge that an entire discussion is false, is not helping a complex nation cope with a complex problem. The story’s headline, “Drop in world temperatures fuels global warming debate,” would be accurate if the word “debate” were changed to “confusion” or “disinformation.”

As the NYU media analyst Jay Rosen wrote in a Twitter post today, “When reality is the wedge issue, journalists have to take sides.”

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.