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.