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.