You Heard It Here First

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: A week of anticlimaxes saw President Barack Obama conducting a less-than-exuberant swing through China, the international community conceding a binding climate treaty at the COP-15 negotiations in Copenhagen, and U.S. lawmakers postponing to the spring of 2010 consideration of climate policy–even as talk of a legislative “plan B” surfaced. A Wall Street Journal piece on Obama’s China visit characterizes how hemmed in the president is abroad and at home, balancing as complex a portfolio as any new president has faced in a century, at least.

Obama left China with seven commitments to work more closely on energy matters, particularly the development of an inventory for China’s greenhouse gas emissions. This technical cooperation may have a political echo in Washington, where Senate Democrats making up their minds about climate change policy have expressed concern that the world’s leading CO2 producer, China, is unable to quantify its pollution. A close read of language in the U.S.-China agreement reveals “subtle but important shift” in climate positions, writes NRDC’s Jake Schmidt.

The Call Is (Also) Coming From Inside the House: Other international voices sound increasingly nonplussed with U.S. performance in the global climate arena. Critics blame Obama, who personifies America abroad, for what they see as a continuation of President George W. Bush’s policies against Kyoto-style international climate agreements. The German newsweekly Spiegel publishes a deeply critical view of Obama’s young presidency. It echoes voices heard elsewhere, voices Climate Post heard a little bit in India last month and that were documented in a post this week over at the New York Times‘ DotEarth blog. The Catch-22: The U.S.’s critics abroad feel that their complaints will not be heard here, since, as Christian Schwägerl charges in Spiegel, “Americans Do Not Look Beyond Their Own Borders.”

Naomi Klein, the activist, globalization skeptic, and writer, provides a fine example in Rolling Stone of how some Americans do not look within their own borders. Klein’s breathless call for climate reparations paid by rich nations to poor, vulnerable nations overlooks major and minor “real-world” issues, beginning with which bank account — previously unrevealed — is she writing her checks from? The piece makes a fine bookend with George Will’s latest effort, as naive as Will’s piece is ignorant. (Both writers seem equally angry.)

Thomas Friedman thumps opponents of measures to reduce national emissions of heat-trapping gases, condensing observations of his recent book into his New York Times column.

You Heard It Here First!: The COP-15 talks in Copenhagen were a cautious success. After months of increasingly dour headlines, 15,000 people (18 of them from the Nicholas Institute and Nicholas School) will have descended three weeks from now on this elegant Scandinavian capital and will have reached a political agreement, in a spirit of collaboration and goodwill that will be expected to lead to a binding legal treaty next year. Whatever will have happened in Copenhagen to make it a success–after all, we just don’t know–it’s likely that high-profile attendees will trumpet its successes, however defined. There has been too much anticipation, too much pre-game show, too many resources spent, to not produce something tangible. Even if it receives headlines similar in tone to Obama’s China trip.

A casual observer to the now year-long run-up to next month’s talks in Copenhagen might be forgiven for thinking that a treaty is an end in itself. The treaty is a means by which countries force themselves and each other to transform their economies toward non-polluting energy systems. The Guardian lassoes some top thinkers on climate policy, who emphasize the urgency to inject capital into energy technologies that do not emit heat-trapping gases. The public emphasis on a deal next month has overshadowed this urgency, the Guardian contents, and, unless investment picks up, nations will continue to build out fossil-fuel powered 20th-century-style infrastructure projects.

Without national or international guidance, businesses already working toward a clean tech economy face considerable uncertainty. Players in the $126 billion global carbon market–concentrated in the European Union’s emissions trading scheme–are particularly exposed. The impetus for that market came after the Kyoto Protocol. Its 2012 expiration date threatens investments, money, and projects tied up in the system. Developing nations, particularly China and India, have made up to hundreds of millions of dollars executing carbon-reduction projects that generate emission credits that rich nations use to “offset” their pollution. The global market for carbon offsets traded under the current regime adds up to $6.5 billion.

Americans in “green jobs” needn’t work for U.S. companies, it turns out. With Obama in China, Suntech, the world’s largest maker of solar panels, announced it would build a factory near Phoenix. The Chinese company’s move may ease some lawmakers’ concerns that less expensive labor costs will push clean-energy manufacturing jobs overseas, BusinessWeek reports. That the profit motive is drawing a Chinese solar giant to the U.S. should fuel the ongoing confusion about whether solar energy is affordable or not.

Roger Pielke Jr, the University of Colorado Boulder political scientist who plays Ugolino to more liberal climate bloggers’ Ruggieri (or vice versa), reminds us with a picture, and his own quick romp through the headlines, what’s happening, and keeps happening, far beneath lofty discussions and aspirations of Copenhagen

A Day in the Life: Washington’s mystique might emerge in the contrast between the monumental things that occur here (and that are expected to but don’t), and the patient, gradual, and frequently silent steps it takes to achieve them. It takes a piece like Barry Yeoman’s profile of Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions (and Climate Post‘s “publisher”) to add depth to the generally superficial headlines about events in Washington. The piece, just published in Duke magazine, lays out with dimension and color the Institute’s mission and the way we do the things we do.

Climate Post will be off next week for Thanksgiving.

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.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Fray


Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed confidence that international negotiators can resolve impediments to a global climate agreement, and that Copenhagen will be a productive step in that process. Ban visited Washington, DC, where he and climate adviser Janos Pasztor spoke with lawmakers about the international community’s expectations for U.S. leadership on global climate policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that the Copenhagen COP-15 talks can be a useful “stepping stone toward full legal agreement.”


President Barack Obama may visit Copenhagen in December if he can help clinch a deal, although his track record on visiting Copenhagen to clinch deals has a 100 percent fail rate (with a sample of one). A quiet-ish week for climate on Capitol Hill pushed news out to the states, where politicians and scientists are fighting what for a while it seemed like were yesterday’s battles.

Let’s Call a Spade a Rake: Political speech sometimes has a duplicitous relationship to the record of observations and understanding that makes up what we know on any given day about “physical reality.” Few things highlight this duality quite like global warming, and no prominent columnist spends more energy prying climate rhetoric and understanding farther apart than Newsweek and Washington Post columnist George Will.

Will’s most recent column about climate change, “Everyone Out of the Water!”, makes a useful touchstone for a week marked by a widening gap between political rhetoric and scientific observation. Space limitations limit analysis of Will’s column to two points, a falsehood and a self-deflating contradiction.

Falsehood: Will dubs as “cooling” conditions that have conspired to make 10 of the hottest years on record all occur between 1997 and 2008, despite flat temperature readings. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. If Newsweek editors follow the lead of their Washington Post colleagues, the magazine will issue no correction, and in fact, allow him to repeat this in a later column. In April, Washington Post reporters went to the possibly unprecedented length of correcting him in a news article.

Self-Deflating Contradiction: Will questions whether “computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming.” This is a fine thing to question. In fact, the entire reason we have computer models is to question them. What they do, sometimes, is give us a sense of probabilities, and among them, a sense of the probability for catastrophic, non-catastrophic, and bearable global warming. Say that you aren’t interested in climate-model projections at all. Say you are interested in U.S. population growth. You might construct a scenario based on what we know of U.S. population growth and conditions for the next few decades. In fact, later in his column, Will writes of emissions targets in the recent House climate bill, “The last time this nation had that small an amount [of emissions] was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050.” Interesting: Why should Will ask us to dismiss any value of climate modeling, and then build his argument for ignorance and inaction based on population modeling? Climate Post bets George Will would never say to a successful hedge fund, Well, you didn’t really make all of that money because you were just using computer models to project probabilities of market behavior and bet accordingly.

Will is only the most prominently published politico to distort scientific habits of mind and the results of vetted observation. In Illinois, five of seven Republican gubernatorial candidates have taken positions against documentation and observation. Utah’s governor and state legislators this week received a “stinging rebuke” from Brigham Young University scientists for privileging “fringe positions.” In this kind of environment, credit goes to the U.S. Senate House Republicans who are pushing back at the Interior Department’s recent move to set up a climate operation: Their letter appears to keep the conversation focused on “What to do” rather than “What’s going on.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who signed the letter, is helping address a hole in science-and-technology research by co-sponsoring a bill that would set up awards for developers of technologies to gobble up airborne carbon dioxide economically and dispose of it.

What’s Going on: Politics and scientific data have typically driven the climate conversation in the U.S. That’s changing, as, across the country, professionals are realizing that warming might challenge or change standard operating procedures. Western water managers face “a pretty daunting and disconcerting reality that we’re beginning to get our heads around,” according to a Nevada official quoted in Climate Wire. The Army Corps of Engineers sees at least some benefit to projections of potential climate change so that “make stupid large investments that are difficult or impossible to undo.” Observational data bear out their concern. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced this week for the last decade record-high temperatures have occurred twice as frequently as record-low ones.

Welcome to Our Growing Indian Audience:
Nothing could be less surprising than, even 14 years after a international scientific collaboration detected a “discernible human influence” on global warming, a writer as influential as George Will being allowed by editors to put forth demonstrable falsehoods about the topic. This criticism is not leveled on policy issues. Deciding to do nothing about warming is one reaction to the preponderance of evidence demonstrating the risks of change. Deciding to reduce U.S. emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–as developing nations argue we should–is another take. The latter route might lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression. The former might also lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression–just not in our lifetimes. Or it might not. That’s the charm of climate change: You really have to decide how much you want to jeopardize the future based on scientifically generated risk data. George Will might argue something like the former, if he would like. He might argue something like the latter, if he would like. But whatever he argues, he might help everyone by looking more deeply at his characterization of climate risk. There’s a big difference between “catastrophic global climate change” and “the risk of catastrophic global climate change.” (Climate Post called Will’s office earlier this year, proposing a year-long team climate reporting project, but never received a response.) After all, what difference can a few degrees make?

[Late addition: Will’s irresponsible columns are a greater tragedy when placed against the sad backdrop of U.S. media dematerialization. Newsweek announced a new round of layoffs this week.]

After a month spent talking in India in part about all the new, interesting, and productive climaterelated developments occurring in the U.S, it’s a shame to have to spend time pushing back against mean-spirited factual incorrectness. To boot, our national conversation is no longer a national conversation. It’s “global” warming, not “America” warming. Many of the people who may live with the economic, social, political, and physical consequences of change are listening, looking to the U.S. for leadership, and not always finding it.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Fist Things Fist: If this section heading doesn’t look quite right it’s because there are a few r’s missing. That was true this week of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a panel of Democrats whose Republican sparring partners boycotted work on the climate bill co-sponsored by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The Republican senators criticized the majority for moving ahead without an EPA analysis of the bill, which is similar to one that the House approved in June. The bill passed out of the committee this morning by a vote of 11-1, with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voting against it, and all the R’s abstaining.

Committee drama set the stage for Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to announce yesterday that they are pursuing parallel negotiations on a climate bill, and are in discussion with the administration, Senate colleagues, and outside interests, including the newly minted American Businesses for Clean Energy.

Expectations for the Copenhagen climate talks continue to drop so low that the conference might end up being declared a success solely on the basis of having enough folding chairs and scratch paper for attendees. Climate envoy Todd Stern told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that in Copenhagen the U.S. hopes to lay groundwork for agreements on contentious issues in the near future.

About Our Recent, Unexcused Absences…: What many Indians lack in understanding “global warming,” they make up for in knowledge that their climate is changing. That’s a central takeaway from Climate Post‘s recent three-week voyage through India. It’s also the central problem in writing about climate change: Scientists commonly define “climate” as a statistical average of weather events, somewhere, over a long period of time. So personal observations, such as, the rainy season isn’t so rainy lately, are of limited scientific value. We can note that extreme events–flooding, drought, erratic weather, coastal erosion, the rest–resemble predictions, if they do. But there’s “no man behind the curtain” of climate change.

These on-the-ground observations may be of limited scientific value. But what makes them tangible is the way that en masse they begin to shape the very non-scientific public awareness and politics. Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay, a Times of India special correspondent, told me that editors have focused attention on climate change prompted not by politics, as is frequently the case in the U.S., but with declining agricultural productivity. The eastern Indian state of Odisha (called Orissa until 2 weeks ago) has many concerns. If there is an environmental problem happening anywhere in India, or the world, it can also be found in Odisha. And climate risks in this region are halting. Last week marked the 10th anniversary of a supercyclone that killed 10,000 people and dislocated more than 1.5 million there. Poorer areas never recovered and fears linger. “They shouldn’t call [storms] ‘low-pressure systems,'” said Prafulla Kumar Dhal, who works for a local social welfare agency called BISWA. “They should call them ‘normal-pressure systems.'”

The U.S. climate debate often feels hollow (mostly–anyone remember Katrina?) because it is largely driven by political concerns and scientific data, not people experiencing the meteorological weirdness that, if nothing else, Occam’s Razor suggests may be partly influenced by climate change. It’s a common assertion in the climate community that poor and vulnerable nations will experience the severest dislocations. It’s a less common assertion that poor and vulnerable nations are already beginning to see strain, are aware of it, and are unhappy. In some ways I learned more about it my first two days in India than in the previous 10 years I’ve spent writing out it.

Beyond the Foreign Section: The Indian trip was organized by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Information Programs, though I traveled as a private citizen unencumbered by any official messages, tasks, or requests. Mostly, I was asked to go over and meet with Indian journalists so that we can compare notes about what works and doesn’t in climate coverage, and find ways to work together. The trip culminated in a New Delhi journalism conference, organized by the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, about bridging the gaps between climate change reporting in the North and South.

Discussions frequently turned to how difficult it is for Indians to see anything beyond Washington, and for Americans to see anything beyond Delhi. Some Indians I met tend to see America as monolithic or a cartoon. President Obama is seen by some as no different from President Bush on climate policy, even if he has the Senate to fault. Many Americans who think about it see India only as the first part of the phrase “India and China,” without recognizing the complexities, that 99 percent of Indians live below the U.S. poverty line or that there are 100 million-200 million more Indians without electricity than there are Americans in total. There is much work to do bringing Indians and Americans together electronically.

Now Appearing on the International Stage: India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, is interesting to watch. He must balance the demands of his government, which is reluctant to amend its incalcitrant position in the climate negotiations, and his interlocutors in the West, who are reluctant to amend their incalcitrant positions in the climate negotiations. This week he is encouraging Indians to see climate change as a leadership opportunity–and a responsibility to the future, and to internalize its meaning rather than play victim to a problem of the West’s creation.

The Obama administration appears poised to make more progress in its bilateral relationship with India than with any other nation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Washington this month and enjoy President Obama’s first state dinner. Trade and geopolitics are bringing the two nations together, cautiously.

Statistical Threats Leave No Fingerprints: India may be more vulnerable to large-scale climate change than any other nation. Seventy percent of its rainfall comes during monsoon season. Unusual variability in the monsoon has led to drought and flooding. Melting Himalayan glaciers threaten fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions. The Bay of Bengal is eroding a string of Odisha villages I visited. BISWA’s Prafulla Kumar Dhal spoke of an important temple, the adjacent wells to which had dried up. “The gods know that the climate is changing,” he said, seemingly incredulous. Maybe so, maybe not. Some weird stuff is happening in India. The question, what if anything will we do about it, remains unanswered–in Washington, New Delhi, Copenhagen, and elsewhere.

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.