In Which Everything Feels Like It’s Come to a Full Stop

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: President Barack Obama defended a market-based system to limit the pollution of heat-trapping gases, a core part of his legislative agenda, even as he acknowledged the Senate may pursue an energy bill without one. He spoke to a “town hall” meeting in Nashua, N.H., about the potential of Senators removing technology-and-jobs legislation from the context of a larger climate bill: “We may be able to separate these things out.  And it’s conceivable that that’s where the Senate ends up.”

Unlike last year, the White House’s proposed 2011 budget, which came out Monday, assumes no revenue from a “cap-and-trade” program. In a footnote, the administration says that in the event revenues materialize, they should be used in “climate-related purposes” for industry and consumers. The budget eliminates fossil-fuel subsidies, boosts EPA funding to implement its greenhouse gas regulations, and triples loan guarantees to the nuclear industry, to $54 billion, an olive branch to the GOP that is likely to rankle the left.

The key Republican in the Senate climate debate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, pushed back at his colleagues who favored an energy-only bill, saying, “If the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill and say that’s moving the ball down the road, forget it with me.”

Washington Beyond Politics: The Defense Department includes a dense, serious four pages on climate change and energy security in its 128-page Quadrennial Defense Review [pp 84-88]. Planners write that global warming will challenge the kinds of missions the military will carry out. The authors rely on official U.S. scientific reports, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2009 overview, and intelligence sources. The QDR observes that “climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters.” Climate change, to Defense planners is “an accelerant of instability or conflict.” The military will also have to adapt to changes along with everyone else: “In 2008, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.”

Politics Beyond Washington: The Quadrennial Defense Review provides a sobering dose of reality to the political arena, where the driving motivation for strong policy is employment. And that message faces strong headwinds.

In California, fiscal woe is undermining public support for leadership in climate and environmental policy. A bill to repeal the state’s climate solutions law, known as A.B. 32, has failed in the legislature. It would have suspended the law’s implementation, due in 2012, until California’s state employment rate falls to 5.5 percent, from the current 12.4 percent. Opponents are pressing for a November public referendum to repeal. Separately, the oil, chemical, and trucking industries are suing California over its low-carbon fuels regulations, which took effect last month. The suit charges that the state rules violate the constitution by interfering with interstate trade. The rules, they argue, discriminate against out-of-state fuel companies.

Internationally, the Guardian concludes from chats with international climate specialists that “a global deal to tackle climate change is all but impossible in 2010,” leaving an uneasy trajectory.  Jan. 31 was the “soft” deadline for nations to submit to the UNFCC their emissions reduction commitments or national mitigation actions. Fifty-countries complied with the deadline set out in the Copenhagen Accord, including the European Union members. Top U.N. officials who assessed the pledges have expressed concern that the numbers are very unlikely to meet the political aspiration of keeping global warming limited to two degrees. The U.S. submitted language similar to what Obama promised at Copenhagen, a 17 percent emissions cut below 2005 levels in 2020. Europe would reduce 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. China and India have pledged reductions in the carbon-intensity of their fuels.

Intergovernmental Panel for Corrections and Clarifications: Twenty-six percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. This unremarkable fact surfaced this week after a Dutch magazine discovered the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put 55 percent of the land below the threshold in its 2007 report (55 percent of the land is vulnerable to flooding). Finger-pointing ensued. Perhaps the IPCC was thinking not of the modern Netherlands, but the Batavian Republic of the late 18th century, which was smaller and more concentrated by the sea?

How can such mistakes be avoided in the future? If you ask cryptographers how to reduce the potential for mistakes, they’ll tell you to publish everything about a cryptographic system publicly. If there are security flaws, some enterprising hacker will find them. The same idea applies to Wikipedia, whose quality control is only as good as its volunteer community gardeners. It’s not a new idea. Attending a livestock exhibition a century ago, the scientist Francis Galton was surprised to discover that in a contest, no individual accurately guessed the weight of an ox, yet the average of more than 800 guesses hit the mark.

If so many of us are interested in helping scrutinize the second review draft of the fifth IPCC report, perhaps there is a way to make it easier for good Samaritan fact-checkers to root out what turn out to be dumb mistakes. The IPCC is already an openly collaborative work–scientific peer review is the original “crowdsourced” enterprise. And the organization is up front about the process by which it produces its comprehensive reports [pdf]. How can public readers of Web-published drafts strengthen the next final report?

Concerns about a lack of crowdsourcing go to the heart of accusations over what, if anything, was wrong or distasteful about the tranche of more than 1,000 e-mail messages hacked out of University of East Anglia servers late last year. Yesterday an ad hoc committee of Pennsylvania State University administrators cleared paleoclimatologist Michael Mann on three of four concerns arising from the UEA e-mails [pdf]: that he made up or falsified data; disregarded protections on other researchers; and failed to disclose financial conflicts of interests. A fourth inquiry–“failure to comply with other applicable legal requirements governing research or other scholarly activities”–will be looked at by a group of faculty members, because the administrative committee wasn’t in a proper position to evaluate.

Question of the Week: If you’ve read this far down, and do every week, you officially are a friend of the Climate Post. Thank you. Lunch with a couple friends of Climate Post turned on a–perhaps the–central question in talking about this stuff: How (on Earth) can we tell experiential stories about a phenomena experienced most confidently only by satellites, digitized ocean buoys, and air-sipping, laser-blasting, carbon-dioxide-molecule counting machines.

Have you personally experienced global warming? And how do you know that? Let’s hear about it. We can crowdsource the big story embedded in them.

IPCC, Brown-Paper Cover Edition: In a move no one could have foreseen, embattled IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri last month published a lascivious romance novel, Return to Almora, which he wrote during recent years traveling the world as a celebrity scientist. Full stop.

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.