Stirrings in the Senate

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: President Barack Obama signed health care reform into law this week, exposing a rarely acknowledged political pre-existing condition among the pundit class: Despite the conventional wisdom, no matter how many years experience a given observer has had in Washington, whatever political party you favor–nobody ever really has any idea what’s about to happen. As Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the other day about the current mood in Congress, “It was bad last week. It’s going to be bad this week. Who knows what it’s going to be like next week?”

Passage of a bill widely declared dead shores up the president’s and his party’s political capital and has prompted an uptick in violent, intimidating rhetoric among the Democrats’ political opponents in and out of the blogosphere. Supporters of the various climate mitigation approaches may feel emboldened, as if the conventional wisdom shouldn’t count them out either.

People at Work: Top White House advisers met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday to chart out a strategy to move climate legislation through the Senate. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to release a draft of their bill in April, after the two-week spring recess that starts tomorrow. The troika has been shopping an eight-page proposal around influential lobbyists, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, according to Politico. The effort by Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman has been the most visible effort by senators to address climate change, but other approaches will not be discounted. More specifically, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will not be discounted. The pair has already written a bill, introduced last November, that would compel heavy industry–predominantly sellers of fossil fuels–to buy carbon emission permits, and trade them in a market. Auction receipts would be mostly re-distributed back to consumers. [Click here to download the Nicholas Institute’s recent modeling study of Cantwell and Collins’ CLEAR Act.]

All eyes turned to Graham after health care passed. Reports circulated last week that he could walk out of climate-bill negotiations if Democrats passed healthcare reform through a procedural sidestep called the “reconciliation” process, which they did. With that bill now law, Graham vows to continue his work with Kerry and Lieberman (I-Conn.). Passing another major bill right after healthcare will take much more than Graham’s presence as a negotiator in a political environment that–however it strains the imagination–keeps finding ways to become more and more poisonous.

Many Democrats are eager to move on energy and climate legislation despite the political obstacles. Twenty two Democratic senators, including Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid supportive of a jobs and energy security bill. Ten senators from coastal states wrote a letter to Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman threatening to pull their support for the as-yet-unseen bill if it contains provisions for offshore oil drilling. NPR asks the question, whatever happened to broader GOP support for climate policy?

Whatever Happened to…: For what it’s worth, the president’s party continues to find encouragement for its climate policy from abroad. The US and international climate conversations merged in Washington this week when Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister of climate and energy, visited, meeting with US climate envoy Todd Stern and chatting up the international importance of US legislation.

When two presidential candidates promised measures to address climate change, in the summer of 2008, confidence in America’s first-ever carbon market shot up to seven dollars a ton. But with international and domestic negotiations uncertain, prices for a ton of carbon on the Chicago Climate Exchange have dropped to ten cents. Among those hit hardest by the collapse in prices are farmers who earned carbon credits through “no-till farming.” When farmers deploy this practice, CO2 remains trapped underground if farmers refrain from turning it over. Good practices–and what constitutes “good practices” can be disputed– aren’t catching up with emissions trends. A report in Nature this week documents a global rise in emissions from soil.

Civil (Legal) War?: Newsweek profiles EPA administrator Lisa Jackson as a way to narrate for its general audience the inside-the-beltway machinations occurring in her agency and on the Hill. Legislators prefer (perhaps by definition) that such major changes in pollution laws go through Capitol Hill. “Jackson knew that threatening to act by executive fiat wouldn’t be popular. But she also knew it would get people’s attention, and maybe prod Congress to act,” writes Daniel Stone. Murkowski has led opposition to the EPA’s move in the Senate.

States too continue to hop on board the EPA litigation train. The federal appeals court in Washington wrapped together the petitions seeking to beat back the EPA’s endangerment finding. Sixteen states have joined the battle. Pennsylvania and Minnesota support the EPA’s finding, and 14 others oppose it: Alaska, Michigan filed separately, while Nebraska, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah acted together.

Carbon–It’s What’s for Dinner: Monday was World Water Day. National Geographic marks the event with a comprehensive cover package about this most personal of all environmental issues (You are mostly water). In the magazine’s leader, writer Barbara Kingsolver offers a lyrical perspective on our many worlds of water. Water is the ultimate commons. Earth has a finite amount of it, but an expanding global civilization. The essay glides toward mention of that seminal work, Garret Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Kingsolver writes: “Agreeing to self-imposed limits instead, unthinkable at first, will become the right thing to do. While our laws imply that morality is fixed, Hardin made the point that ‘the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.’ Surely it was no sin, once upon a time, to shoot and make pies of passenger pigeons.” Other articles–and photos, natch–look at desalination, California’s water, and the U.K. group WaterAid’s work in southwestern Ethiopia.

About 1,800 gallons of water go into the production of one pound of beef. The magazine has a nice online interactive graphic showing the “embedded water” in various products. Likewise, how much CO2 meat production represents came under scrutiny this week. A University of California, Davis, professor challenged a four-year-old report that found emissions from meat production represents 18 percent of the global emissions of heat-trapping gases. Frank Mitloehner told an academic conference that the report, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, included more variables in its calculation of meat’s carbon emissions than in the transportation sector emissions calculated by the IPCC. The apples-to-oranges comparison skews the result, making it look like meat production pollutes more. In the US, transportation contributes about a quarter of emissions, but pork and beef production add just three percent of the national total. An author of the report says of Mitloehner’s study, “I must say honestly that he has a point.”

Sea Is for Climate: Widescale production of batteries would focus attention on parts of the world not considered major players in the global energy economy. But a proliferation of batteries for transportation and stationary use might make Bolivia or neighboring Chile into the Saudia Arabia of lithium, a key ingredient batteries. The nearly 4,000-square mile salt flats, remains of an ancient sea, contain the world’s largest lithium deposits, waiting to power your electric car.

India and Bangladesh settled a longstanding dispute over a tiny island with two names by letting the rising Bay of Bengal swallow it whole. New Moore island (India) or South Talpatti (Bangladesh) stood just six feet above sea level. The waters have risen in temperature and height in recent years. The island, which was uninhabited, will continue to be uninhabited.

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.

Poll Results Handily Explained by Whatever Bloggers Think

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: Another week of waiting for details of Senate legislation left little public grist this week. The Economist runs a climate package, which is worth reading. Beyond that, it’s a good time to take a step back.

Last week, Gallup released results of its latest global warming poll. They found that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans believe that the seriousness of global warming is “generally exaggerated.” That’s up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997. The gap narrowed between people who believe climate change is anthropogenic or natural, 50 percent to 46 percent. Thirty-two percent of respondents think they will be affected by global warming, down eight points since 2008.

A Media Experiment: Gallup released its poll results here, and in the hours and days afterwards, journalists and bloggers plastered it throughout the Web. This speed and ubiquity recommend the poll as a kind of probe, to see what happens to information as it enters the Internet climosphere. The most visible conclusion is that the Internet is all too willing to provide an explanation for data that has no definitive explanation.

The poll results proliferated through the Web’s vast information vacuum with impressive speed if you’ve ever tried to make that happen on purpose. Gallup started more than 70 years ago. It is nearly synonymous with polling. At a time when independent, non-partisan institutions, namely traditional media, are under siege, it’s powerful reinforcement that independence is a good thing and worth protecting.

Other polls conducted in the last six months or so reveal a similar trend of declining interest or concern about environmental issues. The two most frequent explanations are the economic crisis and the organized public campaigns to discredit climate science. Pew Research made headlines last October with a poll showing a 14-point drop in the percentage of respondents who think there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming. American University researchers, working with Yale and George Mason universities, recently challenged perceptions of the under-35 crowd and climate. The study shows that young adults are split and on some metrics less engaged than the older generation. has done some interesting work on deliberative polling.

A Media Circus: The second-least scientific of all investigations, a Factiva search, turned up a not-surprising small number of old-media articles about the poll. Some news organizations have, or used to have, policies that prohibit stories specifically about poll-number releases. Maybe it was seen as “manufacturing news.” The USA Today pins the 20-year low interest in environmental issues on economic hardship. Six of eight environmental issues, including climate, attracted record-low interest. The conservative Washington Times can’t resist an opportunity to make fun of Al Gore and recent winter weather. The Financial Times rounds up poll reaction on its blog, emphasizing the complexity of explaining changes in public views. Josh Nelson at EnviroKnow contributed this interesting partisan break down of Gallup data, which rhymes with Gallup’s own look at changing sentiments among U.S. conservatives.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Internet is an invention optimized mostly for people who want to send each other cute pictures of their cats, whenever possible with funny nonstandard English captions attached. So instead of doing the useful thing, offering you snapshots of important things that happened in climate this week, I dived into the feline underbelly of the Web to see the shenanigans going on with the Gallup poll.

Stephen Rex is relieved that “Nearly Half Of All Americans Calling B.S. On Global Warming.” The professionals at (tagline: “Arrest the Crimatologists”) paste in the Gallup release. Marc Morano, the former aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), runs an operation called Climate Depot that feeds a lot of the AGW ((anti-)anthropogenic global warming) blogosphere. This week he asks, “How could Americans show less concern?!” The least scientific of all investigations, the Google Blog search, turned up far fewer liberal posts that match the breathless, ad hominem, conspiracy-exposing tone of these conservatives blogs. Certainly, that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. Perhaps the garden-variety liberal recreational bloggers invoke their breathless, ad hominem, conspiracy-exposing outrage elsewhere. Or, maybe they’re too busy uploading pictures of their cats with funny captions.

What It All Means: At least two things are missing from the proliferation of Gallup data.

First, it would be helpful if more people understood how to contextualize poll questions. Jon Krosnick of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment pours over poll questions and data, and conducts surveys, too. He pays close attention to the wording of questions, and has a list of suggestions about how to write questions that will elicit more robust answers than others. For example, the “multi-barreled question” offers respondents too many options, confusing what they actually think. A recent Woods Institute/Associated Press poll found that amid the Climategate controversy, Americans’ trust in climate science dropped by five percent—from 80 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2009. Pollsters attribute the drop to shifting sentiments among Americans who are already disinclined to trust climatologists.

The other missing piece has to with climate science itself. By the standards of general public discourse, there are, egad, right answers to many questions (By the standards of science, there are many questions in spots where the public sees right answers). It’s not the pollsters’ job to point this out. Part of the problem is it’s not entirely clear whose job it is. American University’s Matthew Nisbet writes about the predicament climate scientists are currently in, as does Newsweek’s Sharon Begley. Many other professional communicators are limited by partisan affiliation, advocacy ties, or general busy-ness.

It’s clear from this week’s blog tour what online activists do with poll results. What do politicians do with them? There’s much conjecture. Politicians and staffs tend to be less than forthcoming on the issue. There’s been some formal study of the question. A quick literature dive dug up this précis, from a summary of Poll Use and Policymaking in the White House, 1993-2000, by Jeane Zaino:

The case analysis shows that polls are used in a variety of ways, not only to pander and craft rhetoric, but also to set parameters, legitimize, and develop an offensive strategy. The findings show that while polls are used in ways that result in responsiveness to the majority will, they are also used in ways that do not. Democratic officials not only act contrary to popular opinion, but polls aid in this endeavor. These findings suggest that while polls do not consistently undermine democratic government, neither do they necessarily facilitate it either. Consequently, those seeking a larger voice for the public in democratic affairs are cautioned against relying on polls as a primary linking mechanism.

Climate Post Book Club, Parts II and III: Here’s what’s really driving this whole post.

Sorting through books in the basement last weekend, I came across John LeCarre’s The Russia House, his 1989 thriller about a book publisher who becomes an accidental spy when handed a manuscript documenting how the Soviets faked having a nuclear arsenal for 50 years. Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer made starred in a movie based on it a year later.

One question struck me as sat down and flipped through the novel: Why didn’t The Russia House, which did very well, inspire a grassroots movement of Soviet-arsenal deniers to try and dismantle US-USSR negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)?

The last book I read was Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which after the IPCC reports, might be the most influential book ever written about climate change. (Capsule review: Without addressing its unusual presence in the climate debates, State of Fear is a more devastating assault on the English language and the literary convention of the novel than on climate science.)

By the time State of Fear was published, in 2003 or so, partisanship and polarization had an extra 15 years to electronically cordon off right, left, green, and non-green communities from each other. The community of Crichton’s readers had already assembled for him. All he needed to do was strike a match. Judging by the results of all these polls, that task is just going to get easier and easier.

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.

Uptick in Climate Denialism Halts Glacier Retreat and Lowers Sea Levels

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: “The absence of an actual bill” is one impediment to the Senate taking up climate legislation, the Hill reported earlier this week. The climate leadership troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continue to work behind the scenes to steer the many interests toward a common framework. Key business leaders and allied politicians are reportedly encouraged by movement away from the comprehensive approach that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The oil industry, which found the House bill rather expensive, is listening cautiously to a policy that would require them to pay a “carbon fee” rather than buy into an economy-wide fix. President Barack Obama met with 14 senators for more than an hour Tuesday to talk about their shared goals for viable climate legislation, despite a lack of agreement on details or White House demands.

Graham has threatened to walk away from climate (and immigration) legislation if the Democratic majority passes health care reform through a process called “reconciliation,” which circumambulates typical Senate procedure [CongressDaily, sub. req.].

Two “actual bills” would slow or kill the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Two West Virginia Democrats, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, have co-authored a bill that would freeze the agency’s move for at least two years. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a bill that would undo the EPA’s ruling that greenhouse gas emissions pose public harm.

The international negotiation process stumbles forward, toward its year-end COP-16 meeting in cheery Cancun, Mexico. Please do check out the, uh, planned agenda, participants, and guiding documents, here. India and China this week formally signed up for the Copenhagen Accord, the non-binding, vague document to emerge from the Copenhagen COP-15 meeting in December. The developing giants agreed to be “listed” among the Accord countries, rather than “associated” with them, a lesser affiliation reflecting the current difficulties and confusion.

Not Dead Yet: If there’s an enduring legislative metaphor from 20th century cinema, it’s the classic moment from the absurd comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when a man wheels his cart through a Plague-stricken town, telling residents to “Bring out your dead!” The newest body on the cart suddenly exclaims, “I’m not dead yet,” to which he’s told, “You’ll be stone dead in a moment.” The farce ends when the near-deceased is knocked over the head with a club.

In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, with an election approaching, with health care reform absorbing the Senate, and financial and immigration reform not far behind, conventional wisdom holds that climate legislation in the Senate this year is analogously “not dead yet.” (Disclaimer: The conventional wisdom says a lot of things.) The Chicago Tribune documents the rise of climate-science skepticism in the GOP. Read the story from the bottom-up, and you’ll learn that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recently chatted with his new colleagues Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) about their climate bill, which would limit national emissions, compel big polluters to purchase credits for each ton they’re allowed to emit, and dispatch all the proceeds back to consumers.

The Nicholas Institute this week released a modeling study of Cantwell and Collins’ CLEAR Act. Senior Research Economist Eric Williams compares results to the Energy Information Administration’s analysis of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The synopsis: The Cantwell bill’s cost to emit a ton of carbon grows from $21 in 2012 to $55 in 2030, a 5.5 percent annual rise. Market demand for carbon credits pushes the price to the maximum allowed under the legislation—called a “price ceiling”—in every year of the program. Net greenhouse gas emissions, including a companion greenhouse gas-reduction program, might result by 2030 in a 16 percent to 19 percent drop below 2005 levels, far short of Cantwell’s target. That’s compared to EIA’s prediction of a 34 percent net drop under the (now politically dead) House climate bill.

We Have Met the Emitter, and He Is Us: Everything about climate change is hard. This week’s reminder came from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published an analysis of national responsibility for emissions based on trade, rather than emissions within borders. Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science conclude that goods and services traded internationally account for nearly a quarter of industrial carbon emissions. Given the amount of manufacturing in and exporting from China, it’s no surprise that its trade partners are “responsible” for nearly as high a percentage of emissions from the world’s largest national polluter.

Oh, Scientific Community… We Know You’re TryingNever underestimate the incompatibility of traditional media and scientific discourse. The Washington Post this morning ran a slim article on an inside page that deserves full quotation by headline and lede:

Is it fair to introduce to readers an ambitious new oversight project by saying what it will not do? Isn’t that a little bit like headlining the article, “Scientists Too Dim to Focus Review on What You and I Know the IPCC’s Problem Is”? It’s not that this is a particularly egregious article—it’s not like it’s the post-Murdoch-takeover Wall Street Journal‘s news page—but what would be so terrible if conventional journalists added in more explanation into their stories? Regular Post readers are likelier to know that the Himalayas will still be there in 2036 than they are to know just how well-understood the basics of climate change are. If you posit the latter, this headline and lede are less than coherent.

Scientists and science writers have begun to fight back against the misinformation and disinformation campaigns against them. But they’re still bleeding. A new Gallop poll shows that half of Americans think climate change is overblown—48 percent, up from 41 percent last year.  Recent work by the authors of last year’s Six Americas study, shows that the number of respondents who are “dismissive” of climate change is has jumped from 7 percent to 16 percent since 2008.

Adaptation, Already in Progress: From Malawi comes this horrifying story of how extreme meteorological patterns can take individual lives. Unusually heavy rain on a house of unbaked mud brick caused a roof collapse that killed a mother, father, and two children in Lilongwe. A Malawi government report to the UN documented that in the last 20 years there have been enough droughts and floods to “clearly show that there are large temporal and spatial variables in the occurrence of climate-related disasters and calamities.”

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, a planning director has the difficult political task of corralling 16 cities and counties into a discussion of adaptation to rising sea levels, when many constituents posit that climate change risk assessments are wrong, made-up, or overblown.

Problem Solved!: The Boston Globe takes up the “competitive conundrum” of clean energy technologies. That’s a snazzy way of saying that new technologies are more expensive than infrastructure from the last century, such as coal, oil, gas, and nuclear. Without a cost breakthrough—either in the form of a scalable energy invention or a functioning government policy—the 21st century energy economy can’t get started.

I can’t help but wonder if the wrong companies are on the case. Shouldn’t Starbucks (which more than doubled the price of coffee), Apple (whose iPod delivers a tenth the sound quality of analog music at four times the cost), and AT&T (more dropped calls) get to work on making expensive-but-clean tech a style-driven phenomenon? How do you put lipstick on an electron?

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.