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.