Death of a Climate Bill

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First things first:

Last Thursday, according to most accounts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared comprehensive climate legislation to be as dead as the world’s climate-afflicted corals.

Or did he? On the same day, Reid also told Senate Democrats that real action on climate will wait until fall, and Senator Kerry expressed optimism that a post-November elections lame duck Congress – one full of dethroned Democrats with nothing to lose, presumably – would be emboldened to “take a risk.” Some Senate Democrats suggested that a Fall energy bill might include, perhaps as an amendment, a National Renewable Energy Standard that would mandate that all utilities in the U.S. derive at least 15% of their energy from renewables sources by 2020, but Reid dismissed the possibility. (Meanwhile, Oklahoma put its own RES into law.) Obama promised the fight was not over, as did blogger-statistician Nate Silverman, who thinks cap and trade is still viable as a source of government revenue.

There was plenty of blame to go around for failure of the bill, with targets including environmentalists, the President, Republicans, midterm elections, poor messaging, etc. Some environmentalists celebrated the death of the bill, which they argued was deeply flawed. Others contemplated reforming the Senate rules that mandate 60 votes for any contentious piece of legislation (because of the threat of filibuster) that had prevented its passage in the first place, but that doesn’t appear to be any more popular in the Senate than the climate bill itself.

Meanwhile, everyone with an alternative to cap and trade decided this was a teachable moment.

“How Many Showerheads Will $5 Billion Buy?”

Lost in the coverage of what didn’t happen was what is fairly likely to happen: passage of a much-diluted energy bill that provides a few key incentives. The first is conservation: $5 billion for efficiency retrofits of homes, with up to $8,000 in credits per home. Next, in an apparent nod to the Pickens Plan, natural gas-powered trucks, which are slated to get $3.8 billion. Electric vehicles get a $400 million boost. There’s also full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and, of course, measures to stick it to BP by retroactively eliminating the $75 million cap on liability for, e.g., the Deepwater Horizon spill. Only the oil spill related provision looks to be contested by Senate Republicans, who are concerned about its effects on smaller drilling operations. The whole thing is to be funded by a 49c / barrel tax on oil.

“Here Comes Some Old Fashioned Command and Control Climate Regulation”

Climate bill or no, the EPA retains the Supreme Court-directed power to regulate carbon as a pollutant. In the 5-10 years it usually takes environmental regulations to come into effect, anything can happen, but the executive director of the Columbia Earth Institute, for one, is convinced the results will be far more punitive of utilities than a climate bill would have been. A new report says that laws already on the books would allow the U.S. to almost meet its Copenhagen pledge of a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but only if everyone tries really, really hard

Elsewhere, Cap’n Trade is Undaunted

Preliminary analysis of British Columbia’s two year old carbon tax (which is refunded directly to taxpayers) demonstrated economically neutral and climate-positive results. The Western Climate Initiative, which includes portions of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, announced a cap and trade scheme to go into effect in 2012. They projected it would be three times the size of the existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

While Congress Fiddles…

Russia burns, with a record-breaking heatwave in Moscow, raging wildfires and knock-on effects including reduced or eliminated exports of wheat. A new study estimates that over the next 70 years up to a tenth of Mexico’s population could become climate refugees in the wake of agricultural collapse, sending them surging across the U.S. / Mexico border. A retired general asserted that a one meter sea level rise (which could occur as early as the end of this century) would create 35-40 million Bangladeshi refugees.

Water shortages will threaten 14 states by 2050, says one analysis, but water managers in some of the afflicted states pointed out that historical water rights and use in agriculture are also a problem.

The new trade route opened up by a thawing arctic won’t allow polar waters to mop up any more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, because those waters are already saturated. Scientists project recovery from the resulting ocean acidification on a scale of tens of thousands of years.

Scientific American declared that hot is the new black, last Winter notwithstanding, noting that “there have been exactly zero months since February 1985 with average temperatures below those for the entire 20th century.” A new report from the National Research Council reminds us that the average temperature of the planet for the next several thousand years will be determined this century.

Post-Terrorism DOD: Defending the Earth From the Sun

A group of 15 retired admirals and generals declared U.S. energy policy a serious threat to the nation’s economic and national security, and proposed as a solution the procurement might and research experience of the Department of Defense.

Some of that innovation might resemble Siemen’s massive new 10 megawatt wind turbines with hubs on the ground rather than in the air, none of which will be ready in time for the just-commenced construction of the nation’s largest wind farm in the Mojave desert. The commissioning utility will likely be dependent on enormous banks of batteries until a better storage mechanism comes along or Google simply buys all the power. Not to be outdone, Chicago announced the world’s largest urban solar farm.

Fresh analyses of the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power painted a grim picture.

A plugin hybrid Chevy Volt will cost $41,000 before government rebates, which might not compare favorably with the price of an all-electric Nissan Leaf, but at least it’s less than an electric Porsche Boxter. All three will be able to charge up anywhere in the country, as long as that country is Iceland. Ford and Chevy made significant headway on efficiency with conventional internal combustion engines.

Meanwhile, In The World’s Leading Producer of Greenhouse Gases

One-quarter of China’s fresh water is so polluted that it is unfit even for industrial use, environmental accidents in the country doubled since last year, and the its leadership officially denied that it is now the world’s top user of energy. On the same day Reid announced the death of the climate bill, China announced the launch of a massive renewable energy program, including a cap and trade system.

As Jonathan Watts, Beijing-based Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian opined:

“The big contrast between China and the United States, particularly in renewable energy for instance, is that China is trapped by momentum, it has to keep moving forward. By contrast, the US is trapped by inertia – it’s trying to protect what it already has. This is also why China is in a better position to become a green superpower. “

Oil Spills, Caucus Thrills

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: The BP oil spill today became the biggest such disaster ever in the Gulf, eclipsing the Ixtoc I spill off Mexico in 1979-1980, according to high-end government estimates. A federal judge last week struck down the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman instantly became an overnight “folk hero” to some in the Gulf. The Interior Department is developing a new moratorium, but has yet to share details. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has assumed the public mantle of leadership in the crisis, implicating the federal government response as a failure. This transparency only goes so far, though. Jindal last week vetoed a state bill that would have opened to the public all documents about the spill from his office.

“Destruction could be there”: Senate Democrats streamed out of a lively caucus meeting last week described alternately as “thrilling” and “inspirational.” Palpable skepticism of Democratic glee in a Hill story was reinforced several days later when 23 senators and President Barack Obama failed to replicate the same tone in a “much-hyped” meeting about possible climate-and-energy legislation. The bipartisan group cleared no smooth path forward. In the absence of a 60-vote majority on key climate policy points, the Democratic senate leadership could try and graft climate provisions into energy and oil-spill legislation. The Hill attributes to that all-seeing, all-knowing Washington force, “speculation,” predictions that the base bill will look a lot like the energy bill approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the key Republican who dropped his support for a climate bill, skipped the White House meeting but shows up in this weekend’s New York Times magazine, profiled as “This Year’s Maverick.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid characterized the problem this way: “The Democratic caucus realizes that we have a problem[.] We have a phenomenon here that if we don’t do something about, our planet’s destruction could be there. The security of our nation depends on a good energy policy.” Reid is facing re-election in November, against Republican and Tea Party challenger, Sharron Angle. Nevada’s unique role in the nation’s struggle over nuclear power reemerged this week when judges at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission prohibited the White House from rescinding an application to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Reid had strongly supported the president’s move, which fulfilled a campaign promise.

Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes of climate legislation, “Meaningful action of some kind is still possible, or at least conceivable.” He offers a quick reminder and explainer of the main policy instruments here.

Mannhunt ends: An investigative committee at Pennsylvania State University has dismissed misconduct charges leveled against meteorology professor Michael Mann. Mann was one of the climate researchers whose e-mail inbox was exposed last November when servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were hacked. People inside and outside climate science community have chewed over Mann’s work for a long time now, and this was not his first turn under bright lights. “Climategate” was a scale above previous discussions, as those inclined to see scientific conspiracy discovered a cache of material to quote out-of-context.

Accusations made of scientists during climategate are under scrutiny elsewhere. The Sunday Times of London retracted a Jan. 31, 2010 story that slammed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for allegedly basing projections about Amazon rainforests’ vulnerability to climate change on environmentalists’ advocacy materials. In fact, the research was conducted by established scientists and peer-reviewed. Elsewhere, the University of Virginia is fighting a request by the commonwealth’s attorney general for Michael Mann’s research material when he worked for UVA.

Heat stress in the Capital: Five senior citizens have died in the record-smashing hottest June in Washington, DC history. Four people passed away in homes without air conditioning; the fifth collapsed outside. The region’s temperatures averaged 80.6 degrees. On 18 days the mercury soared above 90, including an 11-day stretch in the last two weeks. The Washington Post runs a story about the heat deaths on the front of its Metro section, which seems like a reasonable place for it. It’s the kind of notice that newspapers have run for decades when heat or extreme weather reach tragic levels. But these days such notices are incomplete without discussing extreme local weather events in the context of our best understanding of climate change. March, April, May, and June 2010 have each broken global temperature records (2010 also claims the sixth warmest February, and the fourth hottest January). The more scientists focus their models into regions, or back in time, the less certain such models become. Under current projections, the number of days with a peak temperature above 90 degrees F “is expected to rise significantly, especially under a higher emissions scenario”—the scenario we are currently pursuing, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2009 report.

Trial by Tabloid: Police in Portland, Ore., have reopened an investigation into allegations that Al Gore “made unwanted sexual advances” toward a masseuse in October 2006. The National Enquirer broke the story. Gore has categorically denied any wrongdoing. One of two things will happen to this story: It will disappear or it will continue. Either way, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly over the last few years, climate change is not a phenomenon that has anything to do with the former vice president. This fact is intuitively understood abroad, particularly in the parts of the world where people don’t know Al Gore or they don’t know that he divides Americans into at least three groups: pro, contra, and “over the whole thing.” Some of the more piquant political commentators in the U.S. conflate the man with the cause, and the practice is unlikely to disappear soon.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing”:

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.