Gentlemen, Start Your Lawsuits

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a regulation that if approved would force the largest industrial emitters, including utilities, energy-intensive manufacturing, and refineries, to invest in the cleanest available technology for new projects or major renovations. The announcement’s potential importance overshadowed the nearly simultaneous official release of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the latest “climate” bill that dare not speak its name. These twin events occur as global climate negotiators meet in Bangkok to shrink the disagreements now widely expected to eclipse a comprehensive deal in the Copenhagen talks in December.

Zero to 60(Votes) in 5.4 Seconds?: The EPA’s proposed regulation imposes restrictions on industrial facilities that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. This threshold exempts small businesses and other concerned institutions (ie, large new schools). The Los Angeles Times characterizes the move as a “warning shot to Congress” that the EPA is ready to move if lawmakers are not. The Washington Post lede looks outward, suggesting that the EPA action and Senate bill could influence the COP-15 talks. The rules apply to as many as 7,500 industrial facilities, including 4000 power plants, all of which under the Clean Air Act must meet requirements for emissions of a registered pollutant. They could take effect in 2011.

The Senate climate bill tweaks the legislation that barely passed the House of Representatives in late June. The bill, sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), would lead to 20 percent emissions cuts below 2005 levels by 2020. It girds against disruptive price swings in the market for greenhouse gas emission permits by letting the EPA auction credits to dampen demand. [For relevant Nicholas Institute policy material, click here.] The new bill also empowers a single federal agency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, with preventing fraud and “excessive speculation,” an important consideration after last year’s Wall Street shenanigans and consequent chaos. The key Senate committee, Environment and Public Works, has internal rifts far more serious than anything in memory.

The government has been presenting a menu of options increasingly unattractive to private stakeholders opposing national climate policy. And lately it seems like one option is less desirable than the next, particularly to business interests. Enter the climate lawsuit: A court ruling of potentially great consequence snuck under many newspaper editors’ radar. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of eight states, New York City, and green NGOs, allowing lawsuits charging emissions from coal-burning utilities as a public nuisance.

Drip, Drip, Drip…: Three companies have quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in recent weeks, charging the influential voice of business with retarding the national climate debate. Nike’s exodus follows PNM Resources, PG&E’s, and Excelon’s, which also came this week. General Electric remains in the Chamber, the world’s largest business association, but a GE spokesman said, “The Chamber does not speak for us on climate legislation.” The Chamber and its members, along with the National Association of Manufacturers, are key voices of opposition to climate legislation that has been proposed. (Duke Energy quit the NAM in August.) The big question is, would a larger exodus send a political signal to the Senate that industrial opposition to a U.S. carbon program has eroded to the point where lawmakers can strike the deals necessary to put one in place?

However the voices of business organize themselves in the climate debate over the next few months, longer term trends are much clearer. Business schools around the world are internalizing carbon-constrained business and building curricula accordingly [including Duke].

Not So Radioactive: Nuclear power remains a sticking point in the U.S., but not in India and China. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged to boost India’s nuclear capacity 100-fold by 2050, to 470 gigawatts, with (“untested”) fast breeder reactors. A longtime nuclear power supporter, China would like to increase its nuclear energy production 10 times by 2020, from 11 plants now in operation.

China may announce in Copenhagen its intention to establish a cap-and-trade system. The Guardian cites Philippe Chauvancy, the head of climate exchange at BlueNext, which is working with China to develop standards for voluntary emission reduction products. The article might overstate the speed at which this system might get up and running, given the complexity of building standards and acquiring know-how to certify carbon credits. More likely, China may run pilot emissions trading systems on sulfur dioxide and water pollution.

Do-It-Yourself Climate Change: If the major economies enacted the most aggressive suite of climate proposals, how might they soften climate change by 2050? A new climate model attempts to bridge the gap between discussions on the international stage and scientific predictions about the mitigating effects of aggressive energy policy. C-ROADS started as an MIT doctoral dissertation in 1997, and has been developed into a tool that can project, in real time, the climate results of a given suite of policy. The model’s developers have been shopping it around the world, recently introducing it to Chinese climate experts, so that policymakers can better understand the potential implications of plans and decisions at moments in time up to 2100. The Climate Interactive Web site offers “Climate Bathtub Animation” for viewers playing the home game.

What life in the U.S. might look like in 2050 is hard to say, even with a nimble new climate model. The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s business section grapples with this statement, prompted by a chat with Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy. John Funk’s article points out the proverbial elephant in the room of climate politics: the risks and cost of inaction. the Nature blog Climate Feedback frames the question as an either-or, asking, “If we are trying to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less but 4 degrees is possible even within some of our lifetimes, which world do we prepare for?”

The Climate Archipelago: The many specialities and sub-specialities, topics and subtopics within the climate change conversation really might be imagined as a vast group of islands, each barely visible from the others. Residents of one island might know their own really, really well, but not others’. The several islands of climate skepticism are well-represented in the blogosphere.

Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit is one of the few rigorous sites that actually scrutinizes scientific data, searching for malfeasance and incompetence. McIntyre has earned headlines over the last few years by raising questions about some prominent studies, and laudably forcing a correction or two. But it’s good to keep in mind that disputing one line of evidence of global warming–kicking it out of the climate archipelago–still leaves all the other islands untouched: There are many, many lines of evidence suggesting that human industrial activity is changing the climate. The scientists at, often the target of Climate Audit’s audits, respond to McIntyre’s recent work, pointing out that climate change is sufficiently well-documented that even “a statistical quirk or mistake” doesn’t erase climate risk–or reduce the size of the archipelago.

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.