The documents … they are … Alive! Alive!

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: With the electorate angry and frustrated, President Obama delivered a State of the Union address last night that articulated his goals for, among other things, modernizing the U.S. energy system and infrastructure, and addressing climate change. The president called for “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America,” including nuclear power. New Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the Republican response, imploring the nation that, “Advances in technology can unleash more natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, and alternative energy to lower your utility bills.”

The speech punctuated a week where everything in the climate-and-energy space appeared to be in motion. The troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressed ahead developing their legislation. Kerry shouted down the New York Times for an article suggesting the legislators had scaled back their goals. Graham told the Clean Energy, Jobs and Security Forum that “There will never be 60 votes for climate change legislation as it exists today. And it would be a shame if that is the end of the story.” Todd Wooten, director of the Nicholas Institute’s Southeast Climate Resources Center, spoke on a climate, security, and agriculture panel with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

The BASIC countries–Brazil, South Africa, India, and China–met this week in advance of the Jan. 31 Copenhagen Accord soft deadline for submitting descriptions of their greenhouse gas  mitigation actions to the UNFCC. They also called on developed nations to distribute their $10 billion in pledged adaptation aid to poor countries.

Business as Usual?: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will issue interpretive guidance to help companies evaluate in disclosure documents the risks and opportunities they face from climate legislation, treaties, and other developments–including potential global change itself. The move comes the same week that the CEOs of 83 companies sent a letter to Obama asking him to push for major legislation.

The five commissioners voted along party lines. Their statements provide an interesting snapshot of competing thought on how our venerable institutions are responding to climate risk (Schapiro; Casey; Walter; Paredes; Aguilar). Chairman Mary Schapiro emphasized that the guidance is neither commentary on the vast topic “climate change” nor a set of new rules for businesses to follow. Rather, the rules should help bring consistency to reporting on an emerging public concern. Dissenting commissioners (Casey and Paredes) questioned assigning SEC resources to the fruits of social and environmental advocacy when investors and markets require so much attention elsewhere.

These competing views encapsulate Washington’s two minds on the issues: One view, going forward and in the long term, the U.S. can not assume without risk that the relative climate stability it has enjoyed for 233 years will continue for, say, another 233 years; and a second view, that existing regulations cover what’s needed for climate disclosure, and the SEC should attend to immediate matters. (The actual guidance has not yet been published.)

Global Uncertainty: The SEC refrained from comment on climate change itself, or came close. Commissioner Kathleen Casey added this sentence to her critique of the interpretive guidance: “This guidance is premature at best, as the science surrounding global warming remains far from settled.” [Emphasis added.] Certainly, that’s an easy conclusion to come to, looking at headlines. A new poll shows that Americans concern about climate change has dropped 14 points, to 57 percent, since 2008. It also shows that people trust their local weather forecasters more than traditional reporting outlets (although weather forecasters disproportionately resist global warming). Casey isn’t alone. Some legislators vocalized discomfort with Obama’s mention of climate science in his address. China’s top climate negotiator said he is unready to attribute observed warming to human activity.

IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri has come under fire for the body’s mistaken prediction that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, and for potential business conflicts with his IPCC work. The highest-profile all for his resignation came from the German newsmagazine Spiegel, where Richard Tol, Roger Pielke Jr, and Hans von Storch write, “Astoundingly, it appears that Pachauri has not broken any rules for the simple reason that there is no code of conduct governing conflicts of interest for IPCC participants and leaders.” Pachauri has defended himself and vowed to stay put. The IPCC has responded aggressively to [pdf] a Sunday Times (U.K.) article about climate change and extreme weather events.

Don’t Forget to Check Your Work: Last week, a reader wrote in for more information about which 2007 IPCC predictions have proven to be too modest. One of the sources I suggested as reference was the UNEP’s Climate Change Science Compendium 2009, a review of the professional literature for policymakers in advance of the Copenhagen meeting. The next day, thinking about the recently exposed IPCC error, I started checking through the footnotes. In the opening few pages of my hard copy, there’s a reproduction of the famous “hockey stick” graph, showing proxy evidence for temperature and CO2 over the last 1,000 years or so. I saw the reference, to “Hanno 2009,” and looked it up in the bibliography, but it wasn’t there. Another boneheaded fact-checking mistake, I thought. It’s actually worse than that. “Hanno 2009” isn’t a peer-reviewed journal article at all but a Wikipedia entry (!). Steve McIntyre of had found it last September and written about it here.

The Himalayan 2035 error returned to the conversation the phrase “gray literature” — science writing that has not been peer-reviewed and published in professional journals. But I was surprised and dismayed to see the UNEP rely on a source that wouldn’t pass muster in a descent high school composition class — and then not share the source.

The UNEP in October deleted the “Hanno 2009” graph and replaced it with a graph from this peer-reviewed paper, and a note that says, in part, “UNEP welcomes further constructive comments so that the report evolves as a living document containing the latest peer-reviewed science.” Would I recommend the report again? Probably, keeping in mind that everything said on the topic is one or another kind of “living document.” If something else smells fishy, follow the notes. The ultimate value in these review reports isn’t the actual assembled narrative but in the bibliography of primary research papers. You just have to have time and patience to fall down the rabbit hole, which few people have. And there’s always plenty of other interesting material around to consider. Here’s the Wikipedia page with a history of Hanno 2009, clearly written by someone angry about the matter.

So, is the science unsettled? There are a lot of things we’d like to know better (Nature, sub. req.). But when it comes down to atmospheric physics, it sure seems like a lot of smart people have been working hard and coming up with the same answers for quite some time now. What to do about it is currently up to the Senate, in part. If you have any thoughts feel free to contribute to the comments section or e-mail since Climate Post is a living document.

About the Future: There’s a tendency among probably all the interest-group silos in Washington, whichever one you choose, to think that policymakers, by not doing specifically what it is advocates want, are ruining the future. There’s also a tendency to lose track of other policy issues given the focus on one’s own. With that in mind, consider David Broder’s Washington Post op-ed this morning about the U.S.’s fiscal health, upon which so many of these silo’ed policy discussions depend on for resolution.

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. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

Asian Ice Granted Temporary Stay of Execution

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: A new U.S. senator and a blip in the post-Copenhagen U.N. negotiations may cause comprehensive global climate policy to melt away faster than the Himalayas—or will they?

Surgeon General’s Warning: Many points in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report have been revealed to be wrong as scientists observe global changes occurring faster than predicted just three years ago. Yet these accelerated changes are little remarked on in the mainstream press in the way a dumb mistake has been remarked on this week.  Please keep this general observation in mind through the next section.

The IPCC Regrets the Error: Readers of this space are likely to posit certain things about the world, that global temperature increases are “unequivocal,” that industrial emissions and unchecked land-use change are the major causes, and that we understand these things because the method that scientists don’t call the “scientific method” has historically been terrific at weeding out and incinerating errors in our understanding of nature.

And so it is again. The IPCC this week sort of apologized for an error embedded in the 938-page second volume of its 2007 report, one frequently repeated as an alarming glaciological observation: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”

What the scientific method has revealed here is that this statement is not true. The Himalayan glaciers are receding plenty fast—around the world glaciers are melting more and more quickly—but the projection of 2035 is an error, as explained cogently and thoroughly by the AP’s Seth Borenstein (“The year 2350 apparently was transposed as 2035.”).

What We Have Here Is A Failure to Communicate: Unlike the University of East Anglia climate e-mails revealed in November, this Himalayan hiccup is an embarrassing error, rather than just embarrassing, full stop. But this is the way science works: Un-replicable results or, in this case, a plain-old mistake, are weeded out to make our understanding of nature ever more precise. There’s always plenty we don’t know. Remember Mencken: “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

However, like the University of East Anglia climate e-mails, this Himalaya hiccup is another case study in poor scientific communication to the public. The IPCC addressed the matter in a statement Wednesday, saying that the Himalaya error “refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.” The group adds that “IPCC procedures” “were not applied properly.”  The statement isn’t “poorly substantiated.” As far as anyone knows, it’s false. Scientific communicators might best take a lesson from newspapers, don’t be such a scientist, and just say, “IPCC regrets the error.”

Changing Political Climate: The election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat is the first great political story of the new decade, with likely consequences on climate-and-energy legislation. Brown’s campaign Web site states, “I oppose a national cap and trade program because of the higher costs that families and businesses would incur.” (Massachusetts already participates in a regional cap-and-trade program.) The Congressional Budget Office and EPA estimates of the House climate bill put the cost of transforming the national energy system at about the same price as a pizza a month.

Some of Brown’s new colleagues addressed climate policy this week.  Retiring North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) said that the Senate is unlikely to take up climate policy this year, suggesting an energy bill without economic mechanisms to close the market’s loophole that allows unfettered pollution of heat-trapping gases. Dorgan’s comments contradict Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who last week said legislation may come to the floor this spring.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today introduced a bill that would restrict the White House from regulating greenhouse gas pollution. With climate politics (and regular politics) halting action on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has moved aggressively to impose restrictions through the Environmental Protection Agency. Attacks on the White House’s policy are coming from outside offcialdom, too. Leading business groups and firms met last week to decide on a course of action. The Hill reports that not everyone in attendance opposes the new regulations.

Polling superpower Frank Luntz, who for a long time was a top GOP adviser, has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to argue that most Americans think climate legislation would help solve a real problem with benefits that reach far beyond it. Among the findings [pdf]: Poll respondents are uninspired by the phrase “carbon neutral.”

The Yvo Empire: The Copenhagen Accord set Jan. 31 as a deadline for developed countries to define 2020 emissions reductions targets and for developing nations to announce mitigation actions. That date is fast approaching but fewer than two-dozen nations have signed off on the accord itself, which make it a “soft” deadline. A tentative agreement that rich countries disseminate $30 billion in adaptation funds by 2012 still faces challenges, such as “who will donate how much, where the money will go and who will oversee the spending.” U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer says that congressional inaction will not relieve the White House of Obama’s commitment in Copenhagen to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.  U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern opened up to Grist about his concerns.

The Himalayan error is not the only item weighing on the IPCC’s public reputation, and by extension public appetite for climate policy. Scrutiny of IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri’s business relations is also taking attention away from the robust findings of climate science. With the next big report, the group’s fifth edition, due in 2013-2014, some are wondering if there are alternative avenues to codify climate science for policymakers and the public. Economist Richard Tol has written, “For many policy makers, the IPCC reports are the only source of scientific information on climate change. Monopolies are easily seduced into abusing their power. A duopoly may work better, but given the scale of the effort, this may not be feasible” [pdf].

Prasad Kasibhatla, associate professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has suggested that national academies might work together to issue climate science synthesis reports.

Climate Post Book Club: Every now and then it seems worthwhile to share a recent read. This week’s news coincides with some of the themes in Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen, an adventure-filled biography of rugged, globe-trekking Lonnie Thompson and a sweep through climate science and history.

Applicants Must Make Very Few Numerical Typos: On a lighter note, when looking for the Himalaya statement on the IPCC Web site the first thing you see is this confidence-building item: “The IPCC has started work on the preparation of its Fifth Assessment Report. We are currently looking for experts who can act as authors.”

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.

New Strategery?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: The White House, senators, businesses, environmental NGOs, lobbying groups, and the international community conspired this week to shred any discernible central narrative in the climate story. While this situation might be easily recognized as a normal state of affairs–coming after the singular focus on Copenhagen, and then the singular focus on the holiday break–the diversity and scale of disagreements over how to respond to climate risk are striking. (Caveat: News media are biased toward reporting conflict.)

China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (the BASIC bloc) plan to meet in New Delhi this month, ahead of the Jan. 31 deadline to submit their “mitigating actions” to the U.N. climate change secretariat. The Obama administration and key senators reiterated their support for comprehensive legislation to set a market price for industrial dumping of carbon dioxide emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency found itself the target of criticism from the American Farm Bureau Federation over its new carbon-dioxide regulations. North Dakota is threatening to sue Minnesota over the latter’s new climate policy.

Looking forward to Copenhagen was more fun than looking back is. And looking forward to Cancun (!) isn’t necessarily something everyone is looking forward to. Oh, how to make sense of it all?

“Strategy” Session: Good questions came in after last week’s ruminations, none more fundamental than this: What does “climate strategy” mean after Copenhagen? Let’s take a look.

Abroad: Judging by the proliferation of tactical and other variety disputes this week, it’s clear that there is no dominant strategy at the moment. The UNFCC process had the veneer of dominance, but behind that it seems like it’s just every carbon-polluting entity for itself. What we’re looking at now is something of a reversion to (or progression toward!) the marketplace of ideas, where plans to address climate change will compete for attention from the politicians and policymakers who decide on courses of action.

Say what you want about the Copenhagen Accord hammered out by the BASIC countries and the U.S.: It’s organic and lays bare observations whispered about for some time. Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes, “The two weeks of COP-15 illustrated four specific problems, most of which were apparent long before the Copenhagen meetings.”

A snub to the European Union, the Accord was produced by a small group of nations self-selecting, on the spot, based on geopolitics and economic scale and perceived vulnerability. Perhaps this is a signal that the new strategy is “anyone who can work together should work together.” Perhaps this is a signal that China has enough influence to almost unilaterally dictate the terms of international agreement. The confusion is epitomized by U.S. deputy special envoy Jonathan Pershing and U.K. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband:

Pershing: “It is impossible to imagine a global agreement in place that doesn’t essentially have a global buy-in. There aren’t other institutions beside the UN that have that… We are going to have a very, very difficult time moving forward and it will be a combination of small and larger processes.”

Miliband: “I am confident we can get an agreement as we have made a lot of progress over the last year… We are trying to get consensus from 192 countries from very different places to be part of an agreement. That is tough and that’s what Copenhagen showed.”

At Home: ­­ This week’s Senate intrigue concerned whether legislators might scoop the cap-and-trade system out of climate legislation and run with a scaled-down energy bill.  Conflict-monger Politico glazes over the dispute and the Wall Street Journal‘s Environmental Capital blog concludes its “Scrap-and-Trade” post by saying that “[t]here’s reason to think a clean-energy future could still be in the offing even if Congress does take the path of least resistance and scraps plans for cap-and-trade this year.”

The WSJ article looks at the Senate, but just down the street the EPA advances its plans to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The farm lobby’s vocal opposition was met by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is threatening a lawsuit in language less incendiary than its call for climate science hearings last August. States are asking for more time and small businesses are opposing the policy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). put off introduction of an amendment that would nix the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The move came after the Washington Post reported that two lobbyists “helped craft” the measure.

Conventional wisdom holds that failure in the U.N. arena and potential failure on Capitol Hill will push market-based program out to the states. But if cash-strapped California is any indication, a cold economy can cool interest in climate policy. The LA Times reports a decline in public interest in air pollution and related issues. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has suggested the state hold off on implementing its new rules on the emission of heat-trapping gases. So much for carbon-credit auctions on eBay…

The first big legal skirmish over a climate law could come between North Dakota and Minnesota. The latter has put in place regulations that could raise the cost of electricity in that state–even electrons transmitted from neighboring North Dakota. N.D. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem threatened in late December to file a lawsuit, probably over the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. [Nicholas Institute Director Tim Profeta has written about the issues involved in the Environmental Law Reporter. Pdf here.]

Mailbag (Send Your Questions Here!): Another reader asked last week, Can the USCAP model apply to the global climate framework? How do boundary-spanning entities like leading NGOs, global business, and religious communities engage in a meaningful, constructive way?

Respondents essentially answered the question with another question:  How has USCAP’s position emerged and evolved in the domestic debate? The US Climate Action Partnership is the group of more than two dozen companies and several environmental NGOs. A year ago USCAP released an influential blueprint for climate legislation, which was largely adopted by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in what became the House climate bill. However, as debate over legislative details has become higher-pitched, there’s no public indication that USCAP ever re-reached its initial escape velocity.

A USCAP-like group focused on an international climate agreement would likely experience similar pressures. The big ideas are hard, but easier than the fine print. Another issue appears to be the structure of the UNFCC events itself, which makes it difficult or impossible for corporations to register and take part. The Major Economies Forum may be a more receptive place for businesses who want to register their voices.

The Haitian Earthquake: There’s no direct tie-in to this week’s tragedy, except this: The climate debates are largely driven by our drives for lasting security and prosperity, and the avoidance of human suffering.

Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead addressed students, faculty, and staff in a public letter, and directed attention to relief efforts posted here and here.

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.

A Sleepy Start for 2010

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: Our story left off at the COP-15 negotiations, minutes after world leaders released their three-page Copenhagen Accord [pdf], a broad statement of political intent to address the issues that–according to the (old) UN schedule–should have been addressed by now. This result begs the question: Did 2009 end with more or with less ambiguity about how to address climate change? The potential answers feel more like a Rorschach test than points of debate.

We do know certain things: No one has any illusions about the difficulty of bringing the community of nations to agreement on how to rebuild the global energy economy.  We know that the United Nations process failed to produce a legally binding emissions-reduction and sustainable-development treaty. Or even a political agreement that offers clear guidance to a treaty. We know that China frustrated European and American leaders at key moments, even blocking discussion of national efforts in the Accord, a move that caused German Chancellor Angela German Merkel to demand, “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” It will be interesting to watch the build-up to COP-16, in Mexico City this November, given the certainly dramatic, inevitably anti-climactic (anti-climatic?), year-long sprint to Copenhagen.

We are confident that we have very little idea what course the U.S. Senate will take in coming weeks and months. The leadership troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) appears to be pushing ahead, despite the pessimism engulfing much of the chattering class. Political intrigue erupted this week when two Democratic senators, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, announced their retirements, putting at risk the majority’s ability to maintain a filibuster-defeating voting block. We continue to expect global media interest in geo-engineering to vary inversely with media interest in emissions reductions. And we know that observable phenomena consistent with warming predictions continue to emerge.

Continued international and U.S. policy uncertainty puts renewed spotlight on nascent regional programs, and on the private sector. Companies making up the FTSE 100 are, on average, projecting that they will meet the U.K.’s target of a two-to-three percent reduction annually, according to a new Carbon Disclosure Project report. Global investment managers (not, of course, compelled to act, as FTSE firms are, by a new U.K. law) have yet to substantially incorporate climate risk assessments into their portfolios. Perhaps Google will find a way to solve some of the complications involved in the struggle toward carbon neutrality.

The Center for Public Integrity prefaces the coming activity on climate legislation with a deep dive into lobbying records. The number of registered businesses and groups hovered steadily, around 1,160. But that number conceals about 140 newcomers to the debate, including highly visible consumer firms, such as Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg Company, and Del Monte Foods. “[T]he domestic politics are only growing ‘curiouser and curiouser,’ as Alice might say from Wonderland,” report Marianne Lavelle and M.B. Pell.

New Year’s Resolutions: The holiday break gave Climate Post some time to think about this project, the year passed, and the year ahead (and, for a goof, to begin reading the “climategate” e-mails). And a slow news week opens up space to share thoughts.

The conceit of traditional news-gathering, and by extension, this blog,  is that what just happened is more important than anything else. After all, it is called “the news,” and not “the recentlies” or “the interestings.” But given the sweep of information available to each of us with the touch of a key, there’s no longer a reason to limit ourselves to the news, when “the recentlies” and “the interestings” can really enrich the conversation.

So, how can we enrich the conversation? First, by acknowledging that it’s a conversation. Climate Post is a community, a smallish, newish one, and I’m curious about how to make this fact a little bit more visible. This missive goes out to friends of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Duke University, and is reproduced at the environmental magazine,

Energy and climate change, and all they encompass–economics, policy, science, business, competing values–are extraordinarily complicated, hence the initial idea for Climate Post to begin with. So, other than what’s “news” in a given week, what can we help you with? What came up at a dinner party over the holidays that no one could answer, or that sparked an hour-long discussion, or is reported in contradictory ways? There’s an opportunity here for Climate Post to become something of an information or research concierge, particularly in regard to policy and the work of my colleagues at the Institute. Again, in policy, science, business, behavior, it takes a lot of listening and learning just to become comfortable with what the solutions are.

Space restraints being what they are (ie, restraining), we won’t be able to hit every desirable topic every week. But hopefully the swarm will guide us all toward engaging, informative, and productive conversation, while still flying close to the original mission. This blog is my blog. This blog is your blog. This blog was made for you and me.

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.