The Whole World Is Talking

NI logoFirst Things First: The journal Nature has published a study that attempts to find numerical “planetary boundaries” for global change, an effort that the authors believe will help policymakers better understand humanity’s impact on the planet and its life. A team of Earth scientists, led by the Stockholm Resilience Center, has identified and defined nine natural systems, and sifting through mountains of data and studies, assigned tentative thresholds beyond which environmental stress might cause them to fail. We have already tripped three such systems–climate change, extinction rate, and the nitrogen cycle, they contend. The study is likely to infuriate scientists who think assigning single numbers to such complex systems is absurd; confuse nonprofessionals trying to parse the value of boundaries so laden with caveats and lacunae in knowledge; and succeed in focusing the global conversation on the best available metrics for the speed at which civilization is swallowing the Earth.

NY Midtown Traffic Linked to Climate Change: The ultimate audience for whom the Nature study was conducted met in New York City two days before its publication. President Barack Obama addressed Tuesday’s day-long U.N. climate change summit. He noted the urgency of the issue and his administration’s role in turning around the U.S.’s policy. He outlined investment in renewable electricity and fuel economy and proposed a global phase-out of oil subsidies. But he couldn’t give the audience what it wanted: a U.S. climate policy to back up the president’s international goals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the event, a political pick-me-up on what has otherwise been a muddy road to the December COP-15 talks in Copenhagen. The parade of world leaders past the podium set off the inevitable question of who is leading the global climate debate. Noble speeches and goals were largely deflated by vague language. Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter would cut down by a “notable” amount, without assigning a numerical target. India sent its environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who talked up domestic legislation likely to appear in November that could set voluntary targets for fuel efficiency in 2011, building codes in 2012, and carbon capture and storage by 2020. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog asks, Has China suddenly become the “good guy” on climate?

All the activity may indicate that a new kind of global deal is emerging, in which individual nations design their own goals and programs, in what adds up to a more federalized system. More theoretically, if global emissions were limited to an amount thought to keep the Earth below 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, and the access to these emissions were assigned out based on population, the U.S. would run out in six years and have to stop polluting.

A new series in ClimateWire will provide an in-depth look at development and climate issues inside China. The first piece cites U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern’s observation that parts of China resemble the developed world, even if most of the country is developing. Writer Lisa Friedman nails a central frustration with the status quo international climate regime: “Stern’s problem is that the current global climate change regime doesn’t allow for this kind of nuance.”

List of Lists to Grow: The Stockholm Resilience Institute is only the most rigorous attempt to list issues as a way for people to understand them better. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Browne turns in a New York Times op-ed enumerating five global issues that need attention over the next six months–the most consequential for global cooperation since 1945. Climate change tops the list. Sheila Olmstead and Robert Stavins, of Yale and Harvard respectively, identify three essential pillars of an international agreement: inclusion of key rich and poor nations; allowing enough time for emissions reductions; Tribune Newspapers points out nine potential stumbling blocks to a global treaty. Half of the top 10 most environmentally responsible companies are in information technology, according to a Newsweek study of the green 500.

Capitol Ideas: Conflict in the Senate made Washington a climate center this week, even as the war in Afghanistan distracted people from kicking back and reading Sen. Max Baucus’ centrist health-care legislation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Energy Committee, threatened to introduce legislation that would delay enactment of the EPA’s new greenhouse gas regulations emissions, as they would affect stationary sources, such as power plants or manufacturing facilities. Though the situation is now resolved, it occupied senators on both sides of the aisle for several days.

Activity on climate activity proceeds in the Environment and Public Works Committee, where Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), committee chairwoman, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will introduce a bill next week. It is based on the legislation that passed the House of Representatives in June. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is expected to introduce a stripped-down, 33-page “cap-and-refund” bill that would sell emissions credits at auction to energy companies. Seventy-five percent of the funds would return to consumers. The balance would go toward investment in new energy technology and other climate-related matters.

No (Science) News Is Good News: Upbeat climate-related stories abound, as venture capitalists plow funds into shiny and clean energy technologies and city managers find better ways of living. It is difficult to travel long in this space without acknowledging that dangerous climate change would be a bummer. Precise satellite measurements show that ice melt on Greenland and in Antarctica is accelerating. The Western U.S. may have a hard time planning for change, when officials don’t recognize scientific observations. Overall, the science can be characterized as, if not worrisome, then hard.

Naming Names: One upside to a failure at Copenhagen has gone unremarked upon, until the following conversation with Mrs. Climate Post occurred en route to work earlier this week:

MCP: “So wait… if they strike a deal in Copenhagen, then we’ll have to call it the Copenhagen Protocol, like the Kyoto Protocol?”
CP: “That’s pretty much the idea, yeah.”
MCP: “It’s kind of a mouthful.”
CP: “Next year is Mexico City.”
MCP: “Still a lot of syllables.”
CP: Maybe they can go back to Milan. The Milan Protocol.”
MCP: “That’s nice. I like that.”
CP: “Or Perm…”

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.

Climate Debates Re-Emerge After Week-Long Obscurity

NI logoFirst Things First: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) turned heads this week when he suggested to reporters that the calendar is so full, a vote on climate change legislation might wait until next year. His comments were simple and descriptive, “We still have next year to complete things if we have to,” but drew attention of a climate community that has been wondering since months before the 2008 election how health care and climate change bills might stand in each other’s way. A spokesman later admonished reporters not to read too much into the statement. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Energy and Public Works Committee continues to assemble a draft climate bill. Chris Holly of the Energy Daily, reports that she has removed a provision in the House bill that would contain the costs in a carbon market, and substituted it with a “price collar” that would set high and low prices for a ton of carbon, to reduce volatility (subs. req.)

A week after the health care debate wiped climate change off Washington’s priority list forever, officialdom has snatched it from obscurity with a wave of announcements this week. The Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency unveiled plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, limiting passenger cars, light trucks, and medium-duty cars to 250 grams per mile in 2016. That’s a level equivalent to what might be expected from the administration’s new fuel efficiency standards, which accelerate by four years the level set in Congress’ 2007 energy bill. By 2016, not 2020, manufacturers’ average fuel economy must reach 35.5 miles per gallon. Grist’s David Roberts writes an encyclopedic explainer about the greenhouse gas regulations, with interspersed cute pictures of bunny rabbits to make the medicine go down easier.

The Interior Department launched a coordinated climate observation strategy, carving the country up into eight regions that will enable the government to monitor and respond to changes as they accumulate. Officials did not make clear whether extra resources would be requested for the new strategy, or how much the changes might cost.

Copenhagen Approaches, Senate Action recedes: Uncertainty about the Senate bill could further deflate the decreasingly low expectations for what climate negotiators can accomplish in Copenhagen in December. U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern tells the Financial Times that Senate action would be helpful, but is not instrumental to progress at the 15th Conference of Parties talks (COP-15).

The World Bank has issued its annual world development report for 2010. The Economic Times, India’s largest daily, hears echoes of New Delhi in World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s statements about the respective roles of rich and poor nations in mitigating climate change.  Bemoaning the narrow metrics for global economic growth has long been a parlor game for economists concerned with societal welfare. This criticism has attracted prominent thinkers. This week, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel economist, proposes that the metrics for economic growth be reconfigured to include greater measures of societal welfare. Stiglitz chaired an international panel studying “the measurement of economic performance and social progress.”

Consorting With Consortia: Pools of money targeted for investment in clean technology and energy efficiency are awaiting a global carbon policy. That’s what a consortium of 180 investor groups, representing more than $13 trillion, said this week in support of a global climate policy that involves the U.S. The group also called for changes in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which despite its name isn’t a project to build a robotic floor-sweeper, but the Kyoto Protocol framework governing international carbon offset projects.

EcoSecurities, a Dublin firm that markets U.N. Certified Emission Reduction credits generated under the CDM, is the target of a $200 million JPMorgan takeover bid. The potential deal reflects the increasingly widespread belief that the U.S. is headed toward pricing carbon, even if the legislative pathway still runs uphill. Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, helped launch the new investors’ climate initiative–days after delivering a talk suggesting that rich nations can not reasonably make economic growth their raisons d’etre forever, or possibly for long.

As the Copenhagen talks approach, expect adamant position statements from many more consortia, beyond this week’s gang of investors. A letter signed by 18 top worldwide medical groups warns that the warming world may bring more infectious disease, unstable food and water supplies, and added heat deaths.

Facts are Irrelevant Things: For trivia hounds and fact-finders, few federal gifts potentially offer greater reward for lesser investment than the Freedom of Information Act. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the free-market orthodoxy group that has long muddled public understanding of professional science, released two documents that it obtained through FOIA requests, a one-page Treasury estimate of a greenhouse gas policy proposal from this spring, and a presidential transition memo that estimated the general cost of climate policy at one percent of GDP a year. The Treasury inked out the end of the sentence, “It will raise energy prices and impose annual costs on the order of…”

Politico references the CEI memos among other news items pointing to delay in the Senate climate debate, and quotes two prominent Republican senators drawing on their nubmers (“He said”). “[E]nvironmental groups” rebut, and this statement follows: “But those types of numbers — even if they are inaccurate — could increase doubts already being raised by moderate Democrats about the climate bill.” In a more perfect world, wouldn’t a newspaper demonstrate what is accurate and inaccurate, and at least insinuate that inaccuracy devalues the conversation?

No Monopoly Here: The Institute for Public Policy Research, a U.K. “independent, radical, and progressive think tank” has published a study of how communicators might induce consumers to change their energy use. Not surprisingly, the group concludes that it’s a hard sell, which the Scotsman notes in its headline about the report, “Public ‘bored of preaching by smug, self-righteous greens.'” Climate Post hopes this is the first in a long series of articles that might include the headlines:

  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Professional Baseball Players’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous HMO Bean Counters’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Kanye West’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Atheists’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Climate Media Critics.’

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.

Congress Returns, Teen Saves World

NI logoFirst Things First: When we last left our Senate, Barbara Boxer suggested a bill, similar to the one that the House passed in June, would be ready for the Environment and Public Works committee on its first day back. That was Tuesday. Political reality, the complexity of legislation, and Sen. John Kerry’s  recent hip surgery have together postponed the Senate climate debate. Everyone, even on the many “islands” of the climate archipelago, is talking about health care after the president’s major address last night, and that legislation may take up most of the Senate’s calendar this fall. Boxer has indicated the climate bill will come by the end of the month. Proponents and opponents are unlikely to similarly delay their  intensifying debate about economic costs; a New York University center just weighed in with a new “informal analysis” [pdf]. Whatever the course of the bill, other parts of the Capitol are going ahead with their own green reforms.

The Senate delay clouds up skies above Copenhagen, where international climate negotiators will assemble in less than three months to hash out a potential global agreement. Without passage of a Senate bill, the U.S. team is expected to have less clout to pull together the fractured international debate. The United Nations-guided process is riven by disagreements between rich and poor nations. The two most significant from each group, the U.S. and China, will continue their high-level engagements this fall, when President Barack Obama travels to Beijing. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told reporters in the Chinese capital this week, “I’d place higher odds on the ability of the United States and China to reach an agreement than I would on us passing legislation or on having Copenhagen agreed.”

Japan’s newly elected prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has called for an aggressive national 2020 target of greenhouse gas emission cuts 25 percent below 1990 levels. Echoing statements made by U.S. officials, Hatoyama acknowledged that Japan’s own actions won’t solve the problem, but may speed along international talks. Japan’s largest business group has opposed targets more aggressive than 6 percent reductions. The new goal comes with a sizable caveat, that all other major economies ratify similarly stringent programs.

Oxford Economist Dieter Helm pinpoints a–perhaps the–central problem in international climate policy: Very little in humans’ history of acting as individuals or individual nations (and eschewing outside help), prepares us for a species-wide concern, such as global warming. In a brief excerpt posted by Roger Pielke Jr., Helm questions the utility of the EU reducing its emissions when the looming problem is coal-burning in China and India. One might just as well ask, Why buy solar panels for the roof when the world might see lower net atmospheric carbon levels, and it might be cheaper, if you just bought more efficient refrigerators for carbon-intensive neighbors on either side? (Novelty story of the week: This question would have a different answer if these hair-based solar panels, designed by a Nepalese 18-year-old, worked at scale and solved all energy woes.)

Assembling Armadas: Groups opposed to climate policy earned headlines in August for holding rallies or threatening spectacular legal challenges. The days before Congress’ return were marked by further consternation in the environmental community, when the president’s highly visible “green jobs” tsar, Van Jones, resigned amid controversy over recent comments and past positions. This week environmentalists tried to establish their own momentum, with the launch of Clean Energy Works, a coalition of climate hawks that boasts organizers in 28 states and plenty of voices in Washington. Discussion about how to talk about climate change continues, as Joe Romm at contributes this behind-party-lines look at messaging, highlighting this challenging puzzle: “Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.” (The link is rated PG for mild profanity in the headline.)

This announcement overshadowed the latest offering from a growing cadre of national security hawks. For the last several years figures such as former CIA director James Woolsey, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, have brought attention to the potential defense and geopolitical implications of climate change. They now belong to the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan “who’s who” of former senators, Cabinet secretaries, and White House officials, who have unveiled a letter linking climate change to national security issue and imploring the sitting government to act decisively and promptly.

Uncertain national affairs are weighing down carbon prices in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the carbon market that 10 states participate in from Maine to Maryland. The price for a credit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide has fallen below $2.60, because of the Senate delay, a drop in national gas prices, and general emission levels below original expectations because of the recession.

I was the Walrus: Thousands of Pacific walruses are herding in shallow waters and on land along Alaska’s northwest coast, apparently for reasons less felicitous than to try out the brand new Beatles “Rock Band” game and digitally re-mastered song catalog. This summer looks to be the third most extensive Arctic sea-ice melt on record, behind 2007 and 2005. As the ice vanishes so too does the walruses’ habitat. Clamoring for food and safety on land may bring environmental stresses and crowding that ultimately make shorelines increasingly difficult places for such large congregations.

Geoff Brumfiel at Nature’s “The Great Beyond” picks a head-scratching phase-space graph out of a prominent Royal Society scientific report on geoengineering, and traces how headline-writers struggled with it. The contrasts among the articles in the Register, Financial Times, USA Today, and elsewhere are quite striking (amusing), and reinforce why it’s so nice to have multiple news sources: The differences among them are the best indication of either what’s going on or how difficult it is to ascertain what’s going on.

How to Sound Fancy but Engage in Crass Rhetoric: If you, like Climate Post, are one of the few Americans whose primary association with the word “socialism” is Soviet terror-as-governance and the arbitrary murder of countless millions, then these are confusing times to read about health care and climate debates, in which that moniker seems to apply widely. In a setting as slapdash as this one, the only rebuttal that time permits to Jim Manzi’s recent essay at “The Daily Dish” is a poke at the headline, “The Socialism Implicit in the Social Cost of Carbon.” Just sayin’.

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.

Dial “C” for Carbon

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Climate Post is away this week, trying to estimate sea-level rise from first-hand observation (or, at the beach…). Before life in Washington picks up again in the fall, why not take a step back and look at a way to organize the big picture? The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star recently asked us for an op-ed, reproduced below, which first ran two weeks ago and has since been picked up by the McClatchy wire service. See you next week, and have a good Labor Day.


Alfred Hitchcock filled his movies with suspense by picking some object of life-or-death consequence–microfilm, documents, uranium-filled wine bottles–and setting his characters in pursuit. The great director had a nickname for this plot-driver: the MacGuffin. The funny thing is, as long as his characters found the MacGuffin something to kill for, Hitchcock never particularly cared what the consequences were.

Too often the media treat topics of great national import as MacGuffins, the things that politicians are fighting over this week–though it never seems to matter what thing or what week. Our national storytellers never particularly care what the consequences of “it” are.

Case in point: Senators will return in two weeks from their summer recess and are expected to consider a climate-change bill similar to the one the House narrowly passed in June. The policy would gradually reduce U.S. carbon emissions by adding a price to polluting that commodifies its potential social cost. Judged by the steady ticker of news headlines this year–Wall Street bonuses! Health care! Climate change!–it would be reasonable to conclude that “carbon” is just another in a series of media MacGuffins. This is to our universal impoverishment.

Never mind the serious risks posed by climate change, and the difficulties we have in addressing them. Instead, think about this: What are the consequences of narrowly depicting “carbon” as “troublemaker,” as the MacGuffin we chase to move the climate-change story forward?

There are two main consequences here. The first is that we have become blind to something much bigger, the greatest detective story of all time. It’s not a tale of murder–not yet–but whatever the reverse of that is. Carbon is the story of life (itself!): what science over the past couple of centuries has revealed about it.

About 20 percent of you is carbon. About 80 percent of your DNA is carbon. Life on Earth is a great story, even though we’re uncertain how it begins and ends. The carbon atom, the most “sociable” of the elements, is the fastest way to learn the most about everything larger than a nucleus and smaller than a planet.

Think about this the next time you skip past an article about “carbon emissions,” “carbon footprints,” or “carbon regulations.” Have you ever wondered why leaves are green, why cars go and airplanes fly, how pharmaceuticals work or don’t, and what makes diamonds sparkle? If you’ve ever wondered about how most anything works, carbon is a valuable entry into the conversation, a lowest common denominator for organizing much scientific knowledge.

In the last 150 years or so, but mostly in the last few decades, scientists have identified nearly 50 million different kinds of stuff (molecules). This stuff is made up of combinations of atoms. And there are just 92 kinds of naturally occurring atoms: the chemical elements. A reasonable guess would be that these atoms mix and match pretty evenly to produce those 50 million kinds of stuff. But they don’t: Of those 50 million molecules, all but 100,000 or so contain carbon.

The story of carbon has fallen through the yawning cracks between scientists, who see it as so mundane and obvious that, well, they don’t even see it, and everyone else, who are made uneasy by thoughts of high school chemistry or who write it off as the “Star Trek” cliche of human beings as “carbon units.” Or who tragically think it’s just the ephemeral reason we need an ephemeral climate bill.

Instead of being a policy-world boogeyman, carbon is the most important word that people understand the least, a portal into how life persists and empires rise. If we conduct the climate conversation ripping “carbon” from the context of life on Earth, then we are both leaving ourselves ignorant and missing a terrific yarn. Primo Levi wrote, “The number of [carbon] atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story.”

Consequence No. 2 demands attention because the gee-whiz, science-is-neat, nature-is-beautiful argument doesn’t work for everyone. So we turn to economics, the heart of the neoclassical paradigm, Adam Smith himself.

By treating carbon as a policy-debate MacGuffin, rather than as a central character itself, we are coming close to tripping Smith’s admonishment that an economy of atomized people may lose sight of the big picture. Division of labor, he wrote, drives economic growth by encouraging skills development and efficiency. But too much specialization erodes the system’s overall health.

He wrote: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.”

As proprietors and employees we thrive by honing high-demand skills for our own benefit. As citizens, we thrive together by substantively confronting present and future threats to the Republic. But because we’re overspecialized–and busy, to boot–we have too little context for framing these complicated civic risks.

To adapt a line from a non-Hitchcock thriller: “Follow the carbon.” As the Master of Suspense might agree, it makes a heck of a story.

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.