Who Wants to Be a Climatologist?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Tuesday night Rolling Stone magazine unveiled to a limited audience its new article called “The Runaway General.” But when something “goes viral” in the Internet age, there’s no such thing as a limited audience. In the piece, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, derides and criticizes the president, vice president, and other key senior members of the administration. It caused a media-wide storm and led to McChrystal’s resignation within about 36 hours. President Barack Obama replaced him with General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command. The story has little direct bearing on climate developments, except that in scrambling to defuse the situation, the White House postponed a meeting about climate legislation between Obama and several Democratic and Republican senators. The meeting is likely to be rescheduled for next week, but supporters of action lamented the loss of several working days on what’s already a tight legislative calendar.

Parlor-vous Washington?: A policy approach favored by many environmentalists would set a national limit for greenhouse gas emissions and let the free market find the most efficient ways to meet it. A compromise approach floated this week and not immediately dismissed by the White House and others would limit the cap-and-trade element to the utility sector. (The approach championed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lieberman would set up a utility-sector program in 2013, followed by heavy manufacturing three years later.) With legislation and the schedule to roll it out still in the works, some environmental and liberal groups are paying $11 million for an ad campaign supporting energy and climate legislation.

What is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) thinking? That’s what Darren Samuelsohn, who recently moved from GreenWire to Politico, asks in a piece about Graham’s evolving position on things energy and climate: “It’s become a bit of a parlor game in Washington to guess at Sen. Lindsey Graham’s true motivation for abandoning negotiations on comprehensive energy and climate legislation.” First, senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s initial decision to fast-track immigration policy before climate and energy first separated Graham from the issue. Second, the BP spill scuttled hopes that expanded offshore drilling, which Graham supports, would quickly bring together pro-climate policy Democrats and pro-domestic energy Republicans. Finally, Graham has suggested that climate be held until the next Congress and the Senate knock out an energy bill this year. Earlier in the week, Politico weighed in on John Kerry’s relationship with his Senate colleagues on the issue. Kerry brings enormous knowledge and passion to the issue, which several other senators interviewed in the story admire but can’t always agree with.

Blood and Gore and Sustainability: These are perilous times for climate policy. California will vote in November on whether to suspend its 2006 climate law. The G20 meets this week in Toronto, but with many issues considered more urgent than sustainability and climate change on the agenda. Still, many eyes remain on Washington. As Al Gore told Eric Pooley in Copenhagen last December: “If the Senate defeats the bill, that is an event horizon beyond which it is difficult to see.” Gore and his co-founder of Generation Investment Management, David Blood—a memorable byline if there ever was one—use real estate on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to make a case for sustainable capitalism, and the promise and peril of free markets. “For these reasons and others, markets lie at the foundation of every successful economy… At the very least, the last decade has clearly demonstrated that free and unfettered markets, as they are currently operating, have simply not been delivering optimal long-term results.”

The National Enquirer made a splash across scandal sheets and beyond about sexual misconduct allegations against Gore from 2006.

The U.N. Global Compact and Accenture have found a noteworthy increase since 2007 in the number of CEOs who believe sustainability should be built into the core of their businesses. Their report surveys 766 executives, 80 percent of whom claimed that the economic downturn increased their commitment to efficiencies, cost-saving, and new products that are believed to emerge with sustainable business. European executives make up more than half of the pool (439 people), followed by the Americas (156), Asia/Pacific (113), and Africa/Middle East (58). The broad goals, however, are tempered by the complexity of implementing them across business units, competing priorities, and the rest of the market lagging in its valuing of sustainability.

Ford, et al, and the Electric Car: The White House and electrically powered vehicles have a long, uneven history, going back at least to Sept. 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage was accidentally rammed by one. (He escaped with slight injuries.) In 1976 both houses of Congress approved a $160 million plan to develop an electric car within five years, over President Gerald Ford’s veto. The president called the proposed effort “premature and wasteful.” I don’t know what happened to that program but personal observations and anecdotal evidence suggest it didn’t take off. The Gulf oil spill has led to renewed interest in some parts in a transportation sector fueled on something other than petroleum. The Obama administration this week agreed to support a bipartisan Senate bill that would spend $6 billion on new infrastructure and supporting programs in 15 test cities. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the measure could end up as an amendment to an energy (or energy-and-climate) bill this year.

American Climate Idol?: There must be a way to shrink the vast pool of climate-related sciences and scientists, so that non-specialists of any ideological stripe can agree on the expert thinking and information available… right? A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences digs through scientific literature to compile a portfolio of researchers who publish frequently about climate change and whose work is frequently cited—metrics for climate credibility. Of 1,372 scientists whose work qualified them as leading and active climate experts, 97 percent to 98 percent support the basic understanding of manmade global warming. Doubters have lower levels of “climate expertise and scientific prominence.” In the climatic blogosphere, fireworks ensued over whether the paper amounts to some kind of Bravo-style reality show, like Top Chef, to determine who is… “Top Climatologist!” Kidding aside, the paper is a methodical approach to a challenging issue: How to assign credibility and expertise in a culture that too frequently equates it with page hits.

Something to consider: Pictures of pelicans stained and paralyzed with oil have made the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and circulated around the Web. These protected animals have quickly become poster birds for the Gulf oil spill, iconic as they were already in coastal habitats. Their ecological value is matched by their evolutionary history. The struggle to prevent harm to pelicans in particular is brought home by a study in the Journal of Ornithology (via New Scientist). Research on a 30-million-year-old fossil pelican shows that their beaks virtually haven’t changed in that time. It suggests they reached an “evolutionary optimum”—but one not optimized toward living in a hydrocarbon stew.

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.

Nothing shaking on ‘shakedown’ street

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Congressional investigators have released material documenting troubles at the Deepwater Horizon site before it failed–and a culture of cost-cutting at BP that elevated catastrophic risk. Five days before the April 20 explosion, a BP engineer called it a “nightmare well which [sic] has everyone all over the place.” A detailed letter to BP chief executive Tony Hayward from two House Democrats details five missteps the company took when rushing to complete the Macondo well, including choosing a well design that has too few impediments to gas flow. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) letter can be read here with key BP, Halliburton, and U.S. Minerals Management Service e-mails, including one BP officials conclusion of inadequate concrete “centralizers,” “who cares, its done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

President Obama delivered his first primetime address from the Oval hours then met Wednesday morning with BP executives. The 18-minute speech deployed military metaphors to illustrate the scale of both the federal government’s response effort in the Gulf and what’s needed to develop a clean-energy economy. The president prodded Congress to undertake comprehensive reform, but knows he faces strong opposition: ” So I’m happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party -– as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” The meeting between Obama, his staff, and BP ended with the oil giant agreeing to cancel its dividends this year and to seed an independent fund for Gulf damages with $20 billion.
Obama’s speech offered few specifics or incentives to the senators he’s asking to pass his comprehensive energy bill this year, a feat that becomes more difficult as weeks tick by. Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to decide on a path forward in the Senate by July 4.
The heat on BP on Capitol Hill calls to mind a comment by Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) after the Enron and WorldCom fiascos: “Summary executions would get about 85 votes in the Senate right now”
“A Deep Well of Pessimism”: Shakespeare might look at the current state of U.S. politics, particularly on Capitol Hill and conclude, as Hamlet does, “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If legislators think that a comprehensive energy and climate bill is infeasible this year, then that alone can make it infeasible. American politics and media don’t necessarily handle complexity well–particularly global warming–and climate policy has been growing more complex by the week. It’s a dynamic, volatile situation, and as Nicholas Institute Director Tim Profeta cautioned this week on the Web tv program Duke Office Hours, a “deep well of pessimism” among political leaders can make it so.
An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the APA concludes that the (net-present) annual cost of the bill per U.S. family could fall between $79 and $146. That’s the Senate bill introduced last month by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Those costs reflect a projected rise in energy prices, consequent changes in the price of other goods and services, wages, and returns to capital. (It’s a much lower figure than it would be if money raised by emissions allowances weren’t shared with households.) The estimate doesn’t estimate “the benefits of avoiding the effects of climate change,” making it a cost-effective analysis, not a cost-benefit analysis.
Flash Flooding Continues: Heavy rains killed 20 people in Arkansas this week and at least one person in Oklahoma. Andrew Freedman of the Capital Weather Gang explains how these events—and earlier deadly flooding in the Southeast—might or might not make sense in the context of climate change projections.
Reliably Rating Risks: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently launched a new “Index of U.S. Energy Security Risk” that weighs 37 criteria annually, including geopolitics, economics, reliability, and the environment. This year’s risk index is 83.7, with a baseline of 100. According to the Chamber’s metrics, the APA could help the U.S. attain greater energy security. That’s what Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and Trevor Houser of the Peterson Institute for International Economics concluded in a recent Slate piece. The two calibrated a model to reproduce the Chamber’s results, which they were able to do better than 99 percent, and then fed the draft climate and energy bill into it. The risk index dropped eight percent by 2030 over a business-as-usual scenario. Levi and Houser surmise that energy conservation, alternative and nuclear power, and reduced emissions would contribute to the lessened energy security risk. (Levi has a thought-provoking piece on “energy security” here.)
Words, Words, Words: The oil spill and the politics surrounding it continue to enrich mainstream English with new phrases and idioms, documented memorably this week in a SFGate column by Mark Morford headlined, “Your tar balls are in my junk shot.”
The situation has kicked up a notch in the last few days with strong contributions from BP officials calling the Macondo a “nightmare well” that will “probably be fine.” BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg left a White House meeting with Obama and told cameras that the president is “frustrated because he cares about the small people. And we care about the small people.” The so-called “small people” of the Gulf states are not amused, even if the gaffe doesn’t top BP CEO Tony Hayward’s declaration in the weeks after the fatal accident that killed 11 men, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”
Neither of those statements beats out the bipartisan feeding frenzy that ensued today when Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to BP’s Hayward, who was testifying at a hearing. Barton said he was sorry BP had to go along with the White House’s creation of a $20 billion independent escrow account to pay for oil-related Gulf damages. Say what you want about the fund as a policy measure; Barton did, calling it a “slush fund” and a “shakedown” of the oil giant that evades due process. Immediately, reporters told the world, and Democratic fundraisers blasted e-mail to their supporters. It’s been one of those days in Washington where everything is laid bare: the crass reporting on irresistible but inconsequential confections of news; the party-appartus exploitation of said inconsequential confection for fundraising; and finally, the backtracking and full apology. The latter is much more rare. Within hours, House Republican leaders John Boehner (Calif.) and Eric Cantor (Va.) made Barton retract his statement or sacrifice his high-ranking post. A GOP aide told the Daily Caller, “He was told, ‘Apologize immediately. Or you will lose your position immediately.’”
The hubbub comes the day after members of Congress released their financial disclosures, which the Washington Post perused for oil investments: 30 congressmen owned a total of between $9.5 million and $14 million in oil industry assets. (In a year-plus of Climate Post, this is the first time a personal disclosure is called for: My wife co-reported the story and interactive graphic.)
Trust but Verify: The president inoculated himself against memorable gaffes Tuesday night, but at the risk of not saying anything memorable at all. CNN runs an eight-paragraph account of what the head of an Austin language analysis company said about Obama’s Oval Office address. The factoids are interesting—Obama spoke at a 10th grade level, used 19.8 words per sentence, and words contained 4.5 letters on average (all higher than normal). Still, I’m left wondering why “the CNN Wire Staff” either sought or found no one else on Earth to check to evaluate this analysis. Good for GLM head Paul Payack to have his press release rebranded as a CNN story without challenge, context, or question. Bad for CNN for failing journalism 101 and dressing up a “talking head” as a one-source story.
Meanwhile, on Earth: The past three months have been the hottest March, April, and May since record-keeping began, and—in an apples-to-oranges comparison—David Archer of RealClimate.org calculates that industry and deforestation are releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at a rate 5,000 times faster than the BP spill.
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.

The Senate Gives a Disapproving Look

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: U.S. senators rose one after the next in support of or opposition to a measure that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to declare heat-trapping gases pollutants. The piece in question, a “disapproval resolution,” was sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). In her floor speech, she skewered the Obama administration’s move to regulate greenhouse gases, saying that approach is too harsh in general, and particularly at such a economically sensitive time. Republicans thrashed the EPA’s endangerment finding, arguing mostly that added regulations would cause economic hardship. Several suggested that the day’s vote was not about the science, although it’s worth keeping in mind that EPA officials evaluated the vast scientific literature on climate change as a part of its decision-making process. Six Democrats voted with the 41 Republican senators against the resolution; it failed, 47-53.

The Murkowski resolution wasn’t necessarily expected to pass. But, as expected, it feeds the conventional wisdom that the Senate won’t be able to pass a bill this year. Wednesday Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters he would vote against the leading Senate energy-and-climate bill, which he helped write, because it doesn’t have strong enough provisions for offshore oil drilling. He’s suggested that his colleagues “start over and scale down your ambitions.” Earlier, he supported the idea to begin lowering emissions in the utility sector.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) entered the fray with legislation that would aim to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about half of the president’s target–17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Climate Post Book Club, Part IV
: Given the ever-increasing repercussions of the BP oil spill, Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman’s American Power Act, Lugar’s Practical Energy and Climate Plan, Murkowski bill, and on and on and on, this is a great week for the world to lose itself in a political history book about climate change. However, until this week, there wasn’t one. On Tuesday, Hyperion published The Climate War by Eric Pooley. The author is deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, former managing editor of Fortune, and former national political correspondent at Time (where I first met him about a decade ago).

The Climate War profiles heavyweights in this saga–including two members of the Nicholas Institute Board of Advisers, EDF President Fred Krupp and Duke Energy Chairman and CEO Jim Rogers, among other leaders in the now years-long campaign to bring climate policy to Washington.

The director of the Nicholas Institute, Tim Profeta, rose to prominence during this period. As Sen. Joe Lieberman’s environmental policy adviser 10 years ago, Profeta and his counterpart Floyd Deschamps in Sen. John McCain’s office together spent the hot months of 2001 working on the Climate Stewardship Act, known informally as McCain-Lieberman. Pooley:

Profeta and Deschamps stayed up late drafting the bill, pilfering ideas and language from the acid rain cap-and-and trade program and ‘dreaming up big dreams for our little baby that lived in my computer,’ as Profeta recalled it. How were they going to create a new market and put the industrial economy on a carbon diet? There were a million vexing issues. They drew from academic papers written by economists at EDF, Harvard, Resources for the Future, and other think tanks, and did a good enough job that all of the major climate bills to follow would draw from their work.

Profeta’s work and the Nicholas Institute belong to and serve this very large, very consequential story.

The climate story is many things–overwrought, overhyped, misunderstood, ignored, underhyped, overblown, neglected, arcane, overpoliticized, a no-brainer, and endlessly fascinating. When I ask myself why I’m drawn to the topic (frequently), I always come up with the same answer: Climate change is an everlasting gobstopper, however long you chew it, there’s always more to chew over. But until this week, no traditional political journalist with Pooley’s pedigree has  chewed through the now 20-year (plus) history of U.S. climate politics. The book is beginning to make its media rounds: Andy Revkin at the New York TimesDotEarth blog; an excerpt about Rogers in Bloomberg Businessweek; a piece on Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; Marc Gunther at GreenBiz.com; and Al Gore’s blog.

Remind me who has the cards?: Battles over climate policy are being fought on several fronts. Incoming U.N. climate chief Christina Figueres prefaced her tenure as lead convener and negotiator with a memorable foray into “expectations management.” She told reporters gathered for a briefing about talks in Bonn, “I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change, certainly not in my lifetime… If we ever have a final, conclusive, all-answering agreement, then we will have solved this problem. I don’t think that’s in the cards.”

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.

Obama Retrieves Climate, Energy Debate From Gulf

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Just as discussion of climate change and clean energy dipped below the oil-stained surface of the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama yesterday tried to reach in and offer Climate Policy Resuscitation.  He delivered a broad address on the U.S. economy at Carnegie Mellon University, touring the financial crisis, health care reform, and the challenge to stay internationally competitive. He punctuated the speech with “an issue that’s on everybody’s minds right now,” the Gulf disaster, oil addiction, and the “energy quest.” Obama offered familiar tropes that environmentalists had been missing from him as his administration pursued the many other pressing matters on the agenda. He called for a gradual transition away from fossil fuels that includes “a careful plan of offshore oil production,” more natural gas and nuclear power, and the elimination of fossil-fuel industry tax breaks. He said he’d like to encourage the private sector to invest in a clean energy future, “And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.”

Obama emphasized that “the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months,” a cryptic statement that caused speculation into how presidential arm-twisting could change a debate recently stuck a mile under water.  Cost analyses of Senate climate legislation sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected in the next week or two. An unnamed senior administration official tells Politico that a “BP Spill Bill” is likely to envelope energy and climate measures.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, will unveil a climate bill next week that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions through better fuel economy and energy efficiency measures, and more nuclear power plants. His plan would encourage the phase out older, heavily polluting coal plants by 2020. Projected reductions under Lugar’s bill would be about half what the president has asked for, 17 percent below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The administration sent the United Nations a report concluding that US emissions are expected to climb four percent through 2020. Hydrofluorocarbons, refrigerant chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases, are responsible for the bulk of the projected increase.

Commission Commissioned: Obama’s recently appointed a leadership team to investigate the oil rig explosion and aftermath. It has begun to fill out its roster. At the end of May the president named as chairmen former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and William K. Reilly, EPA chief in the George H.W. Bush administration and a founding partner of Aqua International Partners (Reilly is chair of the Nicholas Institute’s Board of Advisors). The commission is expected to add two experts who have worked on global warming, Donald Boesch, head of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. Boesch recently penned a short Washington Post piece, arguing that “I hope for Earth’s sake, that the winds will blow Congress out of its long-winded debate.” [The last two links, to Tom Toles’ political cartoons, are Boesch’s.]

At this hour, BP has managed to slice open a key pipe leading to the damaged well. The next step is to contain the flow by placing a containment vessel over it and drawing oil up to a tanker.Oil has licked beaches in Mississippi and Alabama, and now threatens the Florida Panhandle. The Society for Environmental Journalists has launched a useful aggregator for Gulf news, The Daily Glob. Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment has also put up a useful page here.

The administration may be steadying a bit after heightened criticism last week of its handling of the Gulf disaster (May 28 WP A1 headline: “Obama struggling to show he’s in control”). The White House took back control of the public focus this week, with the Carnegie Mellon speech and the opening of a Justice Department probe into potential criminal and civil charges.  Visiting the Gulf, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed that the investigation began several weeks ago, but didn’t elaborate. The acting head of the Minerals Management Service at the Department of Interior announced new requirements for offshore drillers, including renewed focus on waivers called “categorical exclusions” that allowed projects like BP’s Deepwater Horizon to proceed without full analysis according to the National Environmental Policy Act. The office has either extended or not extended its moratorium on deepwater permits to all drilling projects in the Gulf.

UNFCCC: Maybe We Can Crash at Your Place for a Few Days?: The U.N. climate secretariat is trying with difficulty to plan two weeklong meetings ahead of the 16th Conference of Parties negotiations in Cancun because of inadequate funding.

For those playing the home game, the World Resources Institute just published a summary of national submissions to the U.N. earlier this year.

Near-universal policy uncertainty has not necessarily confused private-sector initiatives to address climate change. An Ernst & Young report, Action amid uncertainty: The business response to climate change, surveys global executive opinion and strategy. Seventy percent of the 300 leaders surveyed said they would increase their spending on climate-related programs between 2010 and 2012. Respondents represent 16 countries and 18 different industries.

Sustainability standards proliferate, with development of a high-profile new initiative announced this week. Greener World Media, publisher of GreenBiz.com, is partnering with UL Environment to create a global corporate standard, a kind of “LEED rating system for companies,” according to GWM founder Joel Makower. The partners have completed an advanced draft of their proposal, which will be unveiled later this year.

Events Fit Climate Projections Except Where They Don’t: More than 100 people have died in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is experiencing its hottest weather in a historical record, dating to the late 1800s… Forty thousand square miles of sea ice are now disappearing every day. According to the National Snow and Ice and Data Center sea ice has reached its lowest ever extent for this time of the year, and is projected to eclipse the previous annual low, set in 2007… New data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggest that 2010 is on track to be the hottest year yet, months after the World Meteorological Organization declared last decade the hottest on record. James Hansen released his monthly missive–commentary on avoiding perils of communicating climate science—and a draft (pre-peer-review) paper… North American snow cover is at an all-time low.

Small, South Pacific nations fear that rising sea levels will wash them from the map this century. A new research paper finds them to be more resistant than expected. Twenty-three of 27 islands under study have grown in size or not changed since the 1950s. Four have shrunk. Sea levels have risen 120 millimeters in the six decades under study. Coral reefs that surround the islands grow continuously, and can trap sediment close to shore.

The Week in Pictures: After another week in which worst-case scenarios coincided with on-the-ground reports, a little dark humor might be called for—at the media’s expense. Ever think no disaster however great is big enough for cable news types? So does does XKCD.com, the online but underground comic strip, here.

Courtesy XKCD