Climate Debates Re-Emerge After Week-Long Obscurity

NI logoFirst Things First: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) turned heads this week when he suggested to reporters that the calendar is so full, a vote on climate change legislation might wait until next year. His comments were simple and descriptive, “We still have next year to complete things if we have to,” but drew attention of a climate community that has been wondering since months before the 2008 election how health care and climate change bills might stand in each other’s way. A spokesman later admonished reporters not to read too much into the statement. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Energy and Public Works Committee continues to assemble a draft climate bill. Chris Holly of the Energy Daily, reports that she has removed a provision in the House bill that would contain the costs in a carbon market, and substituted it with a “price collar” that would set high and low prices for a ton of carbon, to reduce volatility (subs. req.)

A week after the health care debate wiped climate change off Washington’s priority list forever, officialdom has snatched it from obscurity with a wave of announcements this week. The Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency unveiled plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, limiting passenger cars, light trucks, and medium-duty cars to 250 grams per mile in 2016. That’s a level equivalent to what might be expected from the administration’s new fuel efficiency standards, which accelerate by four years the level set in Congress’ 2007 energy bill. By 2016, not 2020, manufacturers’ average fuel economy must reach 35.5 miles per gallon. Grist’s David Roberts writes an encyclopedic explainer about the greenhouse gas regulations, with interspersed cute pictures of bunny rabbits to make the medicine go down easier.

The Interior Department launched a coordinated climate observation strategy, carving the country up into eight regions that will enable the government to monitor and respond to changes as they accumulate. Officials did not make clear whether extra resources would be requested for the new strategy, or how much the changes might cost.

Copenhagen Approaches, Senate Action recedes: Uncertainty about the Senate bill could further deflate the decreasingly low expectations for what climate negotiators can accomplish in Copenhagen in December. U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern tells the Financial Times that Senate action would be helpful, but is not instrumental to progress at the 15th Conference of Parties talks (COP-15).

The World Bank has issued its annual world development report for 2010. The Economic Times, India’s largest daily, hears echoes of New Delhi in World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s statements about the respective roles of rich and poor nations in mitigating climate change.  Bemoaning the narrow metrics for global economic growth has long been a parlor game for economists concerned with societal welfare. This criticism has attracted prominent thinkers. This week, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel economist, proposes that the metrics for economic growth be reconfigured to include greater measures of societal welfare. Stiglitz chaired an international panel studying “the measurement of economic performance and social progress.”

Consorting With Consortia: Pools of money targeted for investment in clean technology and energy efficiency are awaiting a global carbon policy. That’s what a consortium of 180 investor groups, representing more than $13 trillion, said this week in support of a global climate policy that involves the U.S. The group also called for changes in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which despite its name isn’t a project to build a robotic floor-sweeper, but the Kyoto Protocol framework governing international carbon offset projects.

EcoSecurities, a Dublin firm that markets U.N. Certified Emission Reduction credits generated under the CDM, is the target of a $200 million JPMorgan takeover bid. The potential deal reflects the increasingly widespread belief that the U.S. is headed toward pricing carbon, even if the legislative pathway still runs uphill. Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, helped launch the new investors’ climate initiative–days after delivering a talk suggesting that rich nations can not reasonably make economic growth their raisons d’etre forever, or possibly for long.

As the Copenhagen talks approach, expect adamant position statements from many more consortia, beyond this week’s gang of investors. A letter signed by 18 top worldwide medical groups warns that the warming world may bring more infectious disease, unstable food and water supplies, and added heat deaths.

Facts are Irrelevant Things: For trivia hounds and fact-finders, few federal gifts potentially offer greater reward for lesser investment than the Freedom of Information Act. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the free-market orthodoxy group that has long muddled public understanding of professional science, released two documents that it obtained through FOIA requests, a one-page Treasury estimate of a greenhouse gas policy proposal from this spring, and a presidential transition memo that estimated the general cost of climate policy at one percent of GDP a year. The Treasury inked out the end of the sentence, “It will raise energy prices and impose annual costs on the order of…”

Politico references the CEI memos among other news items pointing to delay in the Senate climate debate, and quotes two prominent Republican senators drawing on their nubmers (“He said”). “[E]nvironmental groups” rebut, and this statement follows: “But those types of numbers — even if they are inaccurate — could increase doubts already being raised by moderate Democrats about the climate bill.” In a more perfect world, wouldn’t a newspaper demonstrate what is accurate and inaccurate, and at least insinuate that inaccuracy devalues the conversation?

No Monopoly Here: The Institute for Public Policy Research, a U.K. “independent, radical, and progressive think tank” has published a study of how communicators might induce consumers to change their energy use. Not surprisingly, the group concludes that it’s a hard sell, which the Scotsman notes in its headline about the report, “Public ‘bored of preaching by smug, self-righteous greens.'” Climate Post hopes this is the first in a long series of articles that might include the headlines:

  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Professional Baseball Players’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous HMO Bean Counters’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Kanye West’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Atheists’
  • Public ‘Bored of Preaching by Smug, Self-Righteous Climate Media Critics.’

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.

Congress Returns, Teen Saves World

NI logoFirst Things First: When we last left our Senate, Barbara Boxer suggested a bill, similar to the one that the House passed in June, would be ready for the Environment and Public Works committee on its first day back. That was Tuesday. Political reality, the complexity of legislation, and Sen. John Kerry’s  recent hip surgery have together postponed the Senate climate debate. Everyone, even on the many “islands” of the climate archipelago, is talking about health care after the president’s major address last night, and that legislation may take up most of the Senate’s calendar this fall. Boxer has indicated the climate bill will come by the end of the month. Proponents and opponents are unlikely to similarly delay their  intensifying debate about economic costs; a New York University center just weighed in with a new “informal analysis” [pdf]. Whatever the course of the bill, other parts of the Capitol are going ahead with their own green reforms.

The Senate delay clouds up skies above Copenhagen, where international climate negotiators will assemble in less than three months to hash out a potential global agreement. Without passage of a Senate bill, the U.S. team is expected to have less clout to pull together the fractured international debate. The United Nations-guided process is riven by disagreements between rich and poor nations. The two most significant from each group, the U.S. and China, will continue their high-level engagements this fall, when President Barack Obama travels to Beijing. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told reporters in the Chinese capital this week, “I’d place higher odds on the ability of the United States and China to reach an agreement than I would on us passing legislation or on having Copenhagen agreed.”

Japan’s newly elected prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has called for an aggressive national 2020 target of greenhouse gas emission cuts 25 percent below 1990 levels. Echoing statements made by U.S. officials, Hatoyama acknowledged that Japan’s own actions won’t solve the problem, but may speed along international talks. Japan’s largest business group has opposed targets more aggressive than 6 percent reductions. The new goal comes with a sizable caveat, that all other major economies ratify similarly stringent programs.

Oxford Economist Dieter Helm pinpoints a–perhaps the–central problem in international climate policy: Very little in humans’ history of acting as individuals or individual nations (and eschewing outside help), prepares us for a species-wide concern, such as global warming. In a brief excerpt posted by Roger Pielke Jr., Helm questions the utility of the EU reducing its emissions when the looming problem is coal-burning in China and India. One might just as well ask, Why buy solar panels for the roof when the world might see lower net atmospheric carbon levels, and it might be cheaper, if you just bought more efficient refrigerators for carbon-intensive neighbors on either side? (Novelty story of the week: This question would have a different answer if these hair-based solar panels, designed by a Nepalese 18-year-old, worked at scale and solved all energy woes.)

Assembling Armadas: Groups opposed to climate policy earned headlines in August for holding rallies or threatening spectacular legal challenges. The days before Congress’ return were marked by further consternation in the environmental community, when the president’s highly visible “green jobs” tsar, Van Jones, resigned amid controversy over recent comments and past positions. This week environmentalists tried to establish their own momentum, with the launch of Clean Energy Works, a coalition of climate hawks that boasts organizers in 28 states and plenty of voices in Washington. Discussion about how to talk about climate change continues, as Joe Romm at contributes this behind-party-lines look at messaging, highlighting this challenging puzzle: “Tell me in one sentence what team Obama says happens if we fail to pass the climate and clean energy bill.” (The link is rated PG for mild profanity in the headline.)

This announcement overshadowed the latest offering from a growing cadre of national security hawks. For the last several years figures such as former CIA director James Woolsey, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, have brought attention to the potential defense and geopolitical implications of climate change. They now belong to the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan “who’s who” of former senators, Cabinet secretaries, and White House officials, who have unveiled a letter linking climate change to national security issue and imploring the sitting government to act decisively and promptly.

Uncertain national affairs are weighing down carbon prices in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the carbon market that 10 states participate in from Maine to Maryland. The price for a credit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide has fallen below $2.60, because of the Senate delay, a drop in national gas prices, and general emission levels below original expectations because of the recession.

I was the Walrus: Thousands of Pacific walruses are herding in shallow waters and on land along Alaska’s northwest coast, apparently for reasons less felicitous than to try out the brand new Beatles “Rock Band” game and digitally re-mastered song catalog. This summer looks to be the third most extensive Arctic sea-ice melt on record, behind 2007 and 2005. As the ice vanishes so too does the walruses’ habitat. Clamoring for food and safety on land may bring environmental stresses and crowding that ultimately make shorelines increasingly difficult places for such large congregations.

Geoff Brumfiel at Nature’s “The Great Beyond” picks a head-scratching phase-space graph out of a prominent Royal Society scientific report on geoengineering, and traces how headline-writers struggled with it. The contrasts among the articles in the Register, Financial Times, USA Today, and elsewhere are quite striking (amusing), and reinforce why it’s so nice to have multiple news sources: The differences among them are the best indication of either what’s going on or how difficult it is to ascertain what’s going on.

How to Sound Fancy but Engage in Crass Rhetoric: If you, like Climate Post, are one of the few Americans whose primary association with the word “socialism” is Soviet terror-as-governance and the arbitrary murder of countless millions, then these are confusing times to read about health care and climate debates, in which that moniker seems to apply widely. In a setting as slapdash as this one, the only rebuttal that time permits to Jim Manzi’s recent essay at “The Daily Dish” is a poke at the headline, “The Socialism Implicit in the Social Cost of Carbon.” Just sayin’.

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.

Dial “C” for Carbon

NI logo

Climate Post is away this week, trying to estimate sea-level rise from first-hand observation (or, at the beach…). Before life in Washington picks up again in the fall, why not take a step back and look at a way to organize the big picture? The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star recently asked us for an op-ed, reproduced below, which first ran two weeks ago and has since been picked up by the McClatchy wire service. See you next week, and have a good Labor Day.


Alfred Hitchcock filled his movies with suspense by picking some object of life-or-death consequence–microfilm, documents, uranium-filled wine bottles–and setting his characters in pursuit. The great director had a nickname for this plot-driver: the MacGuffin. The funny thing is, as long as his characters found the MacGuffin something to kill for, Hitchcock never particularly cared what the consequences were.

Too often the media treat topics of great national import as MacGuffins, the things that politicians are fighting over this week–though it never seems to matter what thing or what week. Our national storytellers never particularly care what the consequences of “it” are.

Case in point: Senators will return in two weeks from their summer recess and are expected to consider a climate-change bill similar to the one the House narrowly passed in June. The policy would gradually reduce U.S. carbon emissions by adding a price to polluting that commodifies its potential social cost. Judged by the steady ticker of news headlines this year–Wall Street bonuses! Health care! Climate change!–it would be reasonable to conclude that “carbon” is just another in a series of media MacGuffins. This is to our universal impoverishment.

Never mind the serious risks posed by climate change, and the difficulties we have in addressing them. Instead, think about this: What are the consequences of narrowly depicting “carbon” as “troublemaker,” as the MacGuffin we chase to move the climate-change story forward?

There are two main consequences here. The first is that we have become blind to something much bigger, the greatest detective story of all time. It’s not a tale of murder–not yet–but whatever the reverse of that is. Carbon is the story of life (itself!): what science over the past couple of centuries has revealed about it.

About 20 percent of you is carbon. About 80 percent of your DNA is carbon. Life on Earth is a great story, even though we’re uncertain how it begins and ends. The carbon atom, the most “sociable” of the elements, is the fastest way to learn the most about everything larger than a nucleus and smaller than a planet.

Think about this the next time you skip past an article about “carbon emissions,” “carbon footprints,” or “carbon regulations.” Have you ever wondered why leaves are green, why cars go and airplanes fly, how pharmaceuticals work or don’t, and what makes diamonds sparkle? If you’ve ever wondered about how most anything works, carbon is a valuable entry into the conversation, a lowest common denominator for organizing much scientific knowledge.

In the last 150 years or so, but mostly in the last few decades, scientists have identified nearly 50 million different kinds of stuff (molecules). This stuff is made up of combinations of atoms. And there are just 92 kinds of naturally occurring atoms: the chemical elements. A reasonable guess would be that these atoms mix and match pretty evenly to produce those 50 million kinds of stuff. But they don’t: Of those 50 million molecules, all but 100,000 or so contain carbon.

The story of carbon has fallen through the yawning cracks between scientists, who see it as so mundane and obvious that, well, they don’t even see it, and everyone else, who are made uneasy by thoughts of high school chemistry or who write it off as the “Star Trek” cliche of human beings as “carbon units.” Or who tragically think it’s just the ephemeral reason we need an ephemeral climate bill.

Instead of being a policy-world boogeyman, carbon is the most important word that people understand the least, a portal into how life persists and empires rise. If we conduct the climate conversation ripping “carbon” from the context of life on Earth, then we are both leaving ourselves ignorant and missing a terrific yarn. Primo Levi wrote, “The number of [carbon] atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story.”

Consequence No. 2 demands attention because the gee-whiz, science-is-neat, nature-is-beautiful argument doesn’t work for everyone. So we turn to economics, the heart of the neoclassical paradigm, Adam Smith himself.

By treating carbon as a policy-debate MacGuffin, rather than as a central character itself, we are coming close to tripping Smith’s admonishment that an economy of atomized people may lose sight of the big picture. Division of labor, he wrote, drives economic growth by encouraging skills development and efficiency. But too much specialization erodes the system’s overall health.

He wrote: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.”

As proprietors and employees we thrive by honing high-demand skills for our own benefit. As citizens, we thrive together by substantively confronting present and future threats to the Republic. But because we’re overspecialized–and busy, to boot–we have too little context for framing these complicated civic risks.

To adapt a line from a non-Hitchcock thriller: “Follow the carbon.” As the Master of Suspense might agree, it makes a heck of a story.

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.

Monkey Business

NI logoFirst Things First: The American “century” began 150 years ago today, when a salt water drill slipped into a crevice 69 feet below the surface, essentially striking oil for “Colonel” Edward Drake and the backers of his unlikely expedition. The find made Titusville, Penn., the first global capital of the oil industry.

After Drake & Co., the earliest winners in the rise of the oil industry were, of course, the whales, who had always selfishly preferred to use their illuminating oil as a buoyancy-control mechanism. But after them, hundreds of millions of people, billions, would win with oil. The small decisions of individuals, families, and businesses lifted many from subsistence agriculture to lives better than much of history’s royalty. In the process, it created what may be our thorniest “tragedy of the commons,” as Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz writes in his recent essay, “Tyranny for the Commons Man.”

Many solutions to the “tragedy” are well known and often discussed, such as the transition from oil addiction to “energy independence.” That medicine goes down only with heavy swallowing in the original Saudi Arabia of energy: Saudi Arabia. Former U.S. and U.K. ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal pens a defense of his nation during the price escalations of recent years, instead blaming, “civil strife, failed investments, or in the case of Iraq, a U.S. invasion,” and hedge fund managers. Production trends in 1998 suggested that by 2008, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela would together produce 18.4 million barrels per day. Last year, they managed 10.2 million barrels. Parts of his essay resonate with U.S. energy pundits, who point out that what’s attainable is “energy security,” not “energy independence,” which is much harder.

Hello, Goodbye: The article appears amid a star-studded lineup in Foreign Policy‘s Special Report, “Oil: The Long Goodbye.” Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize, writes the magazine’s lead piece, and looks at new trends in the oil industry since the early 90s. Two developments dominate: the rise of oil not only as a commodity, but as a financial instrument; and the challenge of climate change.

The U.S. energy industry continues to gird for a fight in the Senate. The American Petroleum Institute funded a study [slide show pdf] that concluded climate legislation would shrink jobs and U.S. investment in the sector, which famously hasn’t built a new refinery in 30 years. These effects would cause the U.S. to demand more, not less, oil from foreign producers. In Brazil, modern wildcatters celebrated the approach of the Drake anniversary by making the biggest Western Hemisphere oil discovery in 30 years.

Look Who’s Talking: “Oil is not even the most important energy issue between China and the United States. It is coal,” Yergin says in his FP story. In a carbon-constrained global economy, the two largest polluters must find a way out of their own prisoner’s dilemma. They are working hard at it.

China and the U.S. may be tip-toeing toward some kind of deal, though it likely wouldn’t be as monumental as environmentalists hope. Developing nations are extremely unlikely to cap their greenhouse gas emissions, but might take on stronger efficiency and renewable power standards. Domestically, some Chinese firms are taking their own baby steps. This month saw the first time a Chinese company bought carbon credits, a laudable, but not earth-shattering development. (More than half of the offsets that feed into the Kyoto carbon trading system originate in China.)

China is investing in renewables at an accelerating rate, even as it builds coal-burning power plants and cars. Keith Bradsher of the New York Times continues to document these trends, this week with a look at how China is running ahead in solar power. Many news gathering operations can no longer afford to staff overseas offices, and many lack the interest in foreign news if they could. This means that there are fewer “eyes on the ground” competing with each other to explain what’s going on. In their absence, blogging observers can fill in gaps.

In international talks, as in physics, a three-body problem is always much harder than a two-body problem. India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced in Beijing–after the two nations’ first ministerial climate talks–that he and his counterparts agreed to coordinate their positions before major climate negotiations. They also admonished against trade protectionism of the sort included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House in June. The Hindu notes that the only conciliatory flicker toward the West was a reference to “looking at peaking [of emissions] some time in the future.”

The international conversation is heard in Washington. Two U.S. Cabinet secretaries, Gary Locke at Commerce and Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, told visiting groups that the U.S. needs a climate bill to take to the Copenhagen negotiations in December. The administration sent a confusing signal this week to legislators. The president’s revised budget proposal maintained a line for $627 billion in income from 2012 to 2019 from the auctioning of greenhouse gas emission permits. During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama pledged to sell all carbon credits at auction. That proved too difficult a goal for Democratic legislators in the House to meet, and the Waxman-Markey climate bill freely allocates about 85 percent of the credits.

MmmmmBiodiesel: During these hot summer weeks, nothing could be more refreshing than plunging our choppers into a juicy slice of thick, pink watermelon. And now, cars can enjoy the same simple pleasures of summer. Sort of. Perhaps watermelon diesel can be more successful than salmon diesel. Perhaps not. Either way, let’s hope fuel crops don’t take over every inch of earth, as the farmers would have to cut down their apparently still-sizable tree cover.

Inherit the Trade Wind: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public hearing about its proposed finding that greenhouse gas accumulation presents a mortal danger to Americans. If the agency fails to do so, the Chamber is threatening “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century,” according to William Kovacs, senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. The case would put climate science on trial in a fashion as spectacular as the proceedings that inspired the play and movie, Inherit the Wind. In 1925, school instructor John Scopes was put on trial for violating a prohibition on teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended Scopes against William Jennings Bryan, who demonstrated to the court that evolution is Biblically false.

Credit where credit is due. With this lawsuit threat, the Chamber has opened a door not only to greater public understanding of global warming, but to a greater understanding of humanity as evolution’s current greatest show on Earth. Scientists are only beginning to understand how changing living conditions, on land, in the sea and air, could affect many of the world’s 1.8 million or so known species, for better and for worse. Arthur Weis of the University of California, Irvine, has shown that mustard seeds gathered in 1997 and preserved grow more robustly than seeds from 2004 grown under the same conditions. His conclusion: Some organisms might be able to evolve more quickly than others to changing conditions.

Let’s hope our economy is one of them.

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.

Would 1.21 Gigawatts a Day Get Us Back to the Future?

NI logoFirst Things First: Research continues apace to find definitions of “clean tech” and “green jobs” that sound more meaningful than campaign rhetoric. In a new report [pdf], the Pew Charitable Trusts pinned down its working description of “clean energy economy” and analyzed 10 years of jobs data, through the 50 states, looking for trends. Analysts found that clean-economy jobs grew at an annual rate of 9.1 percent, compared with 3.7 percent job growth economy-wide. Growth came in both the white- and blue-collar sectors, including professionals “from scientists and engineers to electricians, machinists and teachers.”

Major legislation, such as a climate bill or the current health care initiative, motivates groups who believe they have the most to gain or lose. Here, that means the extractive industries. About 3,500 people converged on a major Houston theater to rally against anticipated Senate climate change legislation. Many attendees work in the energy industry, and major energy firms and business groups backed the event. Similar rallies are expected in 19 states in the next few weeks. An NGO sneaked around the grounds, concluding the event was a large “company picnic.”

The conversation moves to Washington next month. A career-long interest in environmental issues and climate change, coupled with his mien as a senior statesman in the Senate, make Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) likely to play a consensus-building role in this fall’s climate debate. Bloomberg files an overview of the state of play, leading with former Sen. Tim Wirth’s (D-Colo.) objections to the recent House bill. A new National Academies report takes a close look at what the Capitol, literally, can do about its own internal energy policy.

Negotiators left Bonn, where they held pre-COP-15 talks, without much progress toward a new global agreement. Says Anders Turesson, Sweden’s lead climate negotiator: “What we’re talking about is a profound change of industrial civilization. It would be surprising if there weren’t stumbling blocks.”

Seeking Non-Fox to Guard Henhouse: U.K. officials arrested nine people and charged them with conducting fraudulent international carbon-market trades to evade taxation.

Among the many issues that legislators must confront as they draw up climate policy is the carbon market itself, its rules and oversight. The Economist weighs in on this question, and how insubstantial “activist complaints” are steering the conversation awry. Debate is yielding to pre-legislation positioning. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission is a strong contender to oversee the carbon market and laid another preliminary stake to this claim by looking at activity in a voluntary carbon market, the Chicago Climate Exchange. (Nicholas Institute colleagues several months ago prepared a backgrounder [pdf] on the topic.)

1.21 Gigawatts!: Whatever course legislation and markets do or do not take, certain things are true: Meeting emissions targets are likely to become only more difficult as greenhouse gases accumulate. And what it might take to meet the challenge is rarely talked about, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kirsch writes. His back-of-the-envelope analysis is prompted by this Atlantic piece, in which CalTech’s Nathan Lewis suggests the world needs 13,000 gigawatts of clean energy to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million. That’s one gigawatt a day for the next 25 years, or “[i]f we were to build a large nuclear plant every single day for the next 30 years, that would still not be enough to avert the 450ppm limit,” Kirsch writes. CNET weighs in on how to finance a green tech transformation.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong: Scientists are carefully tracking the illness and death of some ocean ecosystems. Global warming’s “evil twin,” is ocean acidification, a subject lately seeing a steady uptick both publicly and academically. Environmental Science and Technology demonstrates this resurgence with an anecdote from a quadrennial scientific conference about coral reefs. In 2004, acidification was ranked 38th out of 39 threats to reefs. In 2008, “Acidification was mentioned almost everywhere.” reports that it’s becoming a problem more rapidly in the Arctic.

Ocean acidification’s “evil twin,” global warming, is sometimes called “global heating” to convey the potential seriousness of the matter. Climate Central analyzed model projections of heat waves under a “conservative warming scenario” and concluded that by 2050, Augusts could become much hotter, with three times the number of days above 95 degrees and double the number above 100 degrees in many U.S. cities. (For some background on modeling see this, this, or this pdf.)

Oliver Morton notes a report that sulfur pollution from shipping should decrease soon. The International Maritime Organization is reducing its cap on sulfur dioxide from 4.5 percent today, to 0.5 percent in 2020. If successful, the rule could reduce premature deaths from pollution from 87,000 to 46,000 a year, with a downside: Atmospheric sulfur dioxide scatters sunlight and helps “cool” the planet. Removing it has the unintended consequence of incrementally worsening global warming, which is why adding even more sulfur to the atmosphere is an idea taken increasingly seriously as a way to mitigate future warming.

When Unbiased Is Biased: Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy Newspapers turns in a surpassing example of how moneyed-interest groups, in this case the Heartland Institute, can earn much-sought-after column-inches by casting doubt on firm, but complicated science and, even more importantly, on climate risk analysis. The Heartland Institute poo-poos much of climate science and this summer even ran newspaper ads saying that “High levels of carbon dioxide actually benefit wildlife and human health.” (Presumably far below concentrations that cause suffocation.) The article looks at the question, confusing enough to lay people, of how we know the globe is warming if the hottest year to date was 1998.

The highest recorded global temperature average indeed occurred in 1998. The top 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media takes a whack at the issue, too.

The McClatchy piece is not obtuse or even “biased” as far as misguided he-said, she-said reporting goes. But it does allow the Heartland Institute to create debate on grotesque and silly premises. The scientists interviewed by Boyd state the case well enough, but they speak technically and in a way that might lose readers. Which are you likelier to remember:

“It’s entirely possible to have a period as long as a decade or two of cooling superimposed on the long-term warming trend,” said David Easterling, chief of scientific services at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.


[MIT’s Richard Lindzen] calls the case for action against global warming “silly” and “grotesque.”

Climate change is ultimately a story of risk, and how we confront it or don’t. Demonstrating that a problem is occurring can never tell us what, if anything, we should do about it. But a newspaper (company) that won’t directly acknowledge that an entire discussion is false, is not helping a complex nation cope with a complex problem. The story’s headline, “Drop in world temperatures fuels global warming debate,” would be accurate if the word “debate” were changed to “confusion” or “disinformation.”

As the NYU media analyst Jay Rosen wrote in a Twitter post today, “When reality is the wedge issue, journalists have to take sides.”

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.

Grid, for Lack of a Better Word, Is Good

NI logoFirst Things First: Cars, trucks, planes, and other things that go add more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere than any other sector where end-users burn their own fuel. And transportation added more energy-and-climate headlines this week than any other sector, driven by an emergency congressional payout to continue the “cash-for-clunkers” program and General Motors’ promotional campaign for the Chevy Volt, its plug-in hybrid electric-and-gas car.

GM’s message is simple enough: “230.” That’s the number of miles that the carmaker says the Volt can travel per gallon of gas, news greeted with a mix of exuberance and skepticism. Many reporters, analysts, and bloggers see symbolism in Chevy’s very announcement, namely, that the company has chosen to speak of its future in the language of the past. By measuring the Volt against the traditional miles-per-gallon yardstick, GM is  fixing the electricity-powered car in the framework of gasoline. The Volt is expected to cost about $40,000 and go on sale at the end of 2011. Question: Could a “cash-for-chargers” program be far behind? Another question: If it’s true, as a former GM official once famously said, that “you don’t roll out a new product in August,” what does an August roll-out say about GM’s enthusiasm for this project?

GM faces nascent and possibly significant competition from upstart companies, such as Coda Automotive and Bright Automotive, who are trying to forego the Detroit business model of having all aspects of production and distribution under one corporate roof.

Department of Chickens and Eggs: The benefits of moving away from gasoline- and diesel-powered automobiles, toward non-polluting energy, are well-known: lower carbon dioxide emission levels; extrication from petro geopolitics; diminishing numbers of car explosions in summertime Hollywood blockbusters. For a fleet of electric cars or hybrids to succeed in replacing them, there must be enough electricity. And the trouble with electricity is that producers find it difficult, once they’ve generated it, to pour it into a pipeline, supertanker, or a hazmat truck. What they need are power lines, which are unsightly, and batteries, which are commercially immature.

If Americans will charge their electric cars at home 90 percent of the time, as predicted, then electric and hybrid fleets will require that much more electricity be conveyed to homes. Power companies will need to both meet new demand for power and manage it wisely. That’s where the “smart grid” comes in. The smart grid is a suite of technologies and behaviors to help power flow smoothly and predictably from generator, to grid, to users (and if they generate more than they need, back to the grid). The clean tech firm GridPoint’s development of software to help utilities monitor and predict plug-in owners’ charging habits is a quieter parallel development to GM’s launch of its Volt campaign.

Beyond batteries and new generation transmission, there are plenty of “clean tech” stories to go around while the solar industry works out its monumental supply glut. And venture capitalists familiar with these developments are finding themselves in influential positions–even in the public sector.

A Clunker of a Program (Full Stop?): An emergency $2 billion tranche will sustain the popular “cash for clunkers” program after it depleted its initial $1 billion treasury. Three criticisms tend to arise: the mileage of approved replacement cars is too low; the program rewards “bad” choices—buying inefficient cars; and marginal auto efficiency improvement are unlikely to produce benefits in financial savings as large as those generated by reducing buildings’ energy waste, or promoting healthier lifestyles.

Part economic stimulus, clunkers-inspired car buying lifted sales 2.4 percent in July and led Ford to ramp up production. The auto sales spike could not alone carry overall retail sales into positive territory. The LAT lays out a loophole in the clunkers legislation, large enough to drive, um, a truck through. The Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), the actual name of the legislation, exempts cars built before 1984, a request by the antique auto-parts lobby: “The final wording of the bill, including the provision requested by the interest group, was ironed out in a legislative conference committee and attached to a military spending bill.” A New York Times lede and a Los Angeles Times photo suggest a marketing trend of dealerships displaying “clunkers” in dumpsters as a signal that they are participating in the program. The NYT Web headline, “A Clunker of a Program?”, demonstrates the time-tested practice of a publication adding a question mark to a non-neutral statement of opinion to make it look like a neutral query.

Senate Climate Bill Goes Down Down Under: The Australian Senate defeated legislation that would have set up a national carbon emissions trading program. Climate change down under divides national political parties on a level the topic has not yet reached in the United States.

Though their political situations have little in common with the Australians, the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Senate also faces obstacles to passage of a climate bill. For one, this week included an estimate that puts the program’s ten-year bureaucratic price tag at $8 billion (The costs of inaction are more difficult to quantify with a pat number). Looming larger, president Obama faces opposition in the Senate from Democrats whose states rely on coal for electricity and manufacturing for jobs. Ten Democratic senators signed a letter to the Obama administration, requesting relief in legislation in the form of border tariffs on goods from countries without climate policies and rebates to offset higher energy costs.

New analysis of legislation by lobbying groups means, among other things, more fodder for he-said, she-said political rhetoric. (He said:) The National Association of Manufacturers rolled out its cost modeling of the House climate-and-energy bill that passed in June, projecting 2 million U.S. job losses and a 2 percent drop in GDP by 2020. The assumptions that went into the modeling are not yet released but (she said:) the Environmental Defense Fund is eager to discredit them. See this for a lengthy treatment of last year’s tete-a-tete between NAM and EDF and why not all economic models are equal, but are sometimes presented that way in quickly written, grotesquely simplified paragraphs like this one.

Attention to the particulars of climate policy will ramp up as the fall legislative season begins, and the Senate tears into its version of the House bill. Seed magazine is ahead of the game, offering an explainer about “carbon offsetting,” that includes views of five experts, including colleague Brian Murray, the Nicholas Institute’s director of economic analysis and an IPCC economist.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Bath: People enjoy the oceans both because they are pretty and because they absorb anthropogenic carbon dioxide, slowing its atmospheric accumulation and trapping of heat. Thanks, oceans. That said, ocean creatures enjoy their water at specific temperatures, depths, salinity, and alkalinity.  As the seas absorb increased carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, oceans’ chemistry changes, becoming less alkaline–or, as it has become commonly known, more acidic. Scientists are studying the effects of ocean acidification on creatures large and small, hoping to glean what this monumental change could mean for the fate of the human presence on and in oceans, marine ecosystems, and by extension the path of carbon from deep Earth, to power plant, to sky, to sea.

Coming off the Earth’s second hottest July in recorded history (about 150 years), it’s nice to think about ice, keeper of its own recorded history (about 800,000 years). One thing that makes climate so difficult to write about is that so much of potential change is clear and so much of it is not clear. If only there were a way to democratize science, so that sitting at your desktop you can see the ice for yourself, where it comes from, and how scientists study it.

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.

Maybe It’s All in Your Head

NI logo

First Things First: At the risk of stating something innocuous that sounds controversial, coal, natural gas, and man-made refrigerant chemicals never did anything to anyone. Oil just sat there for (in some cases) 50 million years. Water vapor is just as happy in lakes and aquifers as in the atmosphere. People burning them, releasing them, or letting them evaporate causes the problem. If you accept these observations as fact, then perhaps Pogo was right: Our behavior matters.

Key climate insights have emerged over the last few years, as neuroscientists, anthropologists, behaviorists, and legions of other -ologists, have peered under our thinking caps and traded hypotheses on what’s going on inside. This week the American Psychological Association dropped a draft, 225-page (double-spaced!) report on how that community can study, educate, and inform climate issues [pdf]. Nature Reports: Climate Change puts the human element on its cover this month, positing, in the words of University of Minnesota’s Jeffrey Broadbent, that climate change’s “only solution lies in a level of global cooperation that humanity has never seen before.” The report explores themes raised less comprehensively, though more memorably, before, as in Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s provocative essay from a couple of years ago.

As the report, Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009, stated earlier this year, different populations understand climate change in discernible ways. And that’s true of nations, too. The University of Maryland’s just turned in some thought-provoking results: In the U.S., political leadership tugs at a generally ambivalent population, but in India, public interest in climate policy might be greater than what leadership can bear. Disagreement over climate change can be traced to core beliefs about the world. Scientific American runs a short piece identifying four main beliefs many people maintain about nature. [For longer treatment see previously linked articles from the New York Times and Seed magazine.]

Capitol Ideas: No where is behavior and thought (or some facsimile thereof) more scrutinized these days than in Washington.

The Democratic health care initiative may overwhelm Senate efforts to pass a climate change bill before the Copenhagen talks at the end of the year, Politico reports. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, has indicated his panel will weigh in on the distribution of emission allowances in the carbon market. Baucus is also the lead negotiator on health care legislation. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Mont.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and key Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), are both also deeply involved in the health care debate. Oddly for a Senate story, the first prominent quotation in the story comes from a senior House figure, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He says of health care, “The reality is [it] is going to happen before cap and trade.” Even so, interest groups have already positioned themselves to speak to a climate bill that still needs to be written.

Some supporters of a Senate bill are rolling out the risks climate change poses to national security, echoed by renewed interest in the Navy to study that topic.

The Charlottesville Daily Progress broke news of a political scandal, in which a lobbyist or lobbyists at Bonner & Associates sent to Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) fake letters made to look like they came from a local NAACP chapter and the Hispanic network Creciendo Juntos. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, announced his panel would investigate the matter. By mid-week, the number of fake letters found grew to a dozen, sent also to Reps. Chris Carney (D-Penn.) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Penn.). The American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy and the Hawthorn Group, which had both hired Bonner & Associates, denounced them. The episode spotlights what has become known in Washington as an “astroturfing“–an inorganic political push manufactured to look like a grassroots initiative.

Eternal Questions, Part MCMLXIV, “At What Cost?“: The Energy Information Administration reviewed the climate bill passed in June by the U.S. House of Representatives, and found its costs largely in line with projections run by the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency. The report, here, projects that by 2020, household energy costs could rise by $114 and a gallon of gas could jump 20 cents. These studies tend not to quantify benefits of legislation, because it is difficult to estimate the savings from maintaining the climate that enabled modernity to emerge.

Nicholas Institute colleagues shed light in a new Policy Brief on a common question for any major legislation: “Who will be regulated?” The House bill would cover a small percentage of emitters, but in so doing encompass the overwhelming majority of U.S. emissions. About 1.3 percent of 350,075 manufacturing facilities might qualify for regulation–and that would cover 82.5 percent of the industry’s emissions [pdf].

Slouching Towards Copenhagen: The international conversation continues apace, with negotiators meeting this week in Bonn inching toward a still foggy potential agreement at the COP-15 climate conference in Copenhagen. China’s lead negotiator, Yu Qingtai, beaned developed nations for not setting or fulfilling emissions targets, even as he emphasized his optimism for a global deal. Yvo De Boer, the U.N.’s climate chief, shared with a Pacific islands conference his increasing concern that the year is ticking by without demonstrable progress. An AFP photographer demonstrates the all-too-common practice of photographing world leaders against a backdrop of circular institutional logos as in saint iconography.

Taking the Car out of “Carbon” (or vice versa…): Two leading voices of American business–venture capital giant John Doerr and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt–unite on the Washington Post op-ed page to warn of the crisis in the U.S. energy sector. It has fallen behind China, a nation “which understands the importance of controlling its energy future.” The U.S. by implication lacks such an understanding. They put forth a five-point plan to boost U.S. energy innovation, to address, for example, China and India eating America’s lunch on solar. Doerr and Immelt are not writing in a vacuum, as some industries and trade groups are already rallying for trade measures that would encourage rule-based global green trade.

Congress had set aside $1 billion to fund a “cash-for-clunkers” program, in which Americans can turn in their inefficient cars and receive a break toward ones with better gas mileage. The hugely popular program needs an emergency tranche of funding to meet continued demand. The Associated Press crunches numbers and concluded that the program is not making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions: The program is an expensive way to save just one hour’s worth of emissions from the U.S. economy. President Barack Obama returned to beleaguered northern Indiana this week to launch a $2.4 billion initiative to populate roads with electric cars.

Debate over nuclear power has long been so controversial that the word “radioactive” is a commonly used adjective affixed to politically complicated subjects. The question of nuclear power plant safety continues to rile critics. Increasingly, the economics of nuclear power eclipse the traditional safety debate. The WSJ‘s “Environmental Capital” spots developments in Italy, which has shunned nuclear power since Chernobyl but now hopes to build four reactors much more cheaply than any plan discussed in the U.S.

“In a Word, ‘Good.’ In Two Words, ‘Not Good.'”: The Christian Science Monitor catches the grim moment in an otherwise upbeat story. Science magazine last week published research showing that efforts to help marine ecosystems recover from decades or centuries of exploitation are paying off. Most fish stocks around the world still need much support, but marked improvement abounds. That is, absent significant changes in marine chemistry brought about by changing atmospheric chemistry. The absorption of carbon dioxide makes the oceans less alkaline (or more acidic). This change can disrupt biological processes of pivotal shell-making organisms, corals, and others (See this subs. req. New Yorker piece). One of the study’s lead authors told the now Web-only newspaper: “All bets are off with climate change, particularly ocean acidification.”

If you feel confused about how to respond appropriately–studies show–you’re not alone.

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.

Big Hopes for Al G.

NI logoFirst Things First: The trouble with electricity is that you can’t seal the unused portion when you’re done using it and put it on a shelf. The New York Times explores one potential industry in the “green jobs” archipelago trying to change that, filing a piece from industrial-belt poster-city Allentown, Penn.  International Battery is developing a cereal-box-size battery that could help remake the energy economy by making electricity able to be stored with ease and scale as never before. The company and more than 120 others are vying for $2 billion in grants the Department of Energy will dole out to seed a U.S. industry for electric-car batteries.

Another strategy to save electricity for later, beyond batteries, is to not generate it until later. The U.S. might reduce its 2020 energy use by 23 percent with a comprehensive–and well-executed–program to burn less and harness more from what we do burn. That’s the conclusion of a major McKinsey report that analyzes and models integrated energy efficiency planning among local, state, and federal governments, and public and private entities. Forty percent of the savings would fall in the industrial sector, with 35 percent in homes, and the balance in the commercial sector. The net savings from identified actions comes to $600 million in the next decade in the McKinsey scenarios.

Energy efficiency is frequently referred to as “low-hanging fruit,” or the “fifth fuel” for electricity, after coal, natural gas, nuclear, and the various renewables. Amory Lovins, the energy strategist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is no stranger to energy efficiency. His 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” [pdf] called for “a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy.” The essay was immediately recognized as a maddening disruption (some people liked it and some hated it). This week Lovins and two co-writers call for a new manufacturing paradigm, akin to the shift during World War II, in which Detroit dropped car-making and went into the tank business. Lovins et al write in their recently acquired roles, shared with all American taxpayers, as co-owners of General Motors.

Here’s an idea, possibly the next step in the history of “cap-and-trade.” To reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, the federal government sets a maximum number of miles Americans can drive every year, a cap that declines over time. Drivers who exceed their cap any year must buy mile credits from less traveled compatriots. Okay, it’s a bad idea, and one unconsidered by federal agencies, NGOs, and industry groups who built scenarios for halving U.S. transportation emissions by 2050. The report, Moving Cooler, was put out by the Urban Land Institute, and overseen by a group assembled from government, business, and NGOs.Reduced speed limits, land-use change, and tweaking travel behavior might bring a 24 percent drop. The changes that would bring those reductions toward 50 percent include “pay-as-you-go” auto insurance and per-mile driving fees.

The Feel Good Hit of the Summer: The U.S. and China held an upbeat summit in Washington, which resulted in a signed memorandum that lays out how the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters can work together more closely on climate change and clean energy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the talks reinforced the centrality of climate change to the two nations’ relationship. President Barack Obama opened the two-day event, noting that “neither of us profits from a growing dependence on foreign oil, nor can we spare our people from the ravages of climate change unless we cooperate.” This builds on previous memoranda of understanding, including the recent agreement to invest together in research into carbon capture and storage (CCS), or trapping CO2 from a coal-plant chimney and pumping it underground for the eons.

The House climate bill would dangle billions of dollars in incentives before coal-burning power plant operators, encouraging them to seek and deploy CCS technology. The government would reward carbon pioneers by making the first 6 gigawatts of stored emissions eligible for allowances worth up to $90 a ton, more than three times the price tag the EPA has projected for a high-end carbon price.

The Guardian teases out the conflict in this tale from Spremberg, Germany, where Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has built a $100 carbon capture and storage facility. Residents nearby the Schwarze Pumpe project are skeptical, apparently, of living atop a reservoir of carbon dioxide. “It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” a Vattenfall official said. The European Union would like to build as many as a dozen such plants by 2015.

A Meaty Issue: The many issues touched by climate change cut close to something very close to the American heart: the American stomach. The Washington Post‘s “Food and Dining” section riles carnivores in this piece that recites the litany of obvious reasons why mass consumption of red meat fuels climate change. Ezra Klein cites a 3.5-year-old University of Chicago study that estimates a vegan diet prevents more emissions than trading in an inefficient car for a Toyota Prius [pdf].  The problem: “Telling people to give up burgers doesn’t poll well.”

Why We Have Satellite Monitoring: Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk is two months into a six-month stint on the International Space Station. On Sunday, he reported a personal observation that glaciers are melting. “Most of the time when I look out the window I’m in awe. But there are some effects of the human destruction of the Earth as well. “This is probably just a perception, but I just have the feeling that the glaciers are melting, the snow capping the mountains is less than it was 12 years ago when I saw it last time,” Thrisk said. “That saddens me a little bit.”

Many eyes in the climate sciences now turn north this time every year, to watch the Earth’s Arctic ice cap dissolve into the sea. The National Snow and Ice Data Center writes updates on Arctic sea ice extent, usually the first week of the month. They’ve interrupted regular programming to note that this year sea ice is shrinking faster than in 2008, the second deepest melt, but still slower than in 2007, when the ice cap reached its lowest documented extent.

Congressional action on climate change has increased public attention to all aspects of debate, even in matters where most key scientists have high confidence in observations, such as whether climate change is happening, given temperature records of the past decade. This week came news that the global seas have set a heat record, warming to 0.59 degrees C above the 20th century average of 16.4 degrees C (about 62 degrees F). But it’s the air temperature that has received much (or, depending on your perspective, too little) scrutiny in the press and blogs. For further clarification, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration included a sidebar clarifying the matter, “Do global temperature trends over the last decade falsify climate predictions?” The passage can be found on pages 23-24 of this report pdf.

The Second “Al G.”: How’s this for a headline, from Technology Review: “A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels.” This week Joule Biotechnologies, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., unveiled its process for harvesting 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of souped-up algae. The lede reveals, “If this yield proves realistic, it could make it practical to replace all fossil fuels used for transportation with biofuels.” That’s a big if. The company has raised “substantially less than $50 million,” some of it from employees. The challenges are formidable. Algae populations can grow too fast and expire before their work is done. And the bioreactors themselves can be too expensive for their fuels to pay off (Unless gas prices spike and don’t fall again). The company hopes to start building a commercial scale plant in 2011. This technology is most interesting and most welcome, but be cautious about messianic stories about start-ups looking for VC funding.

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.

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

NI logoFirst Things First: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India last weekend to inch forward collaboration on regional security, global business, nuclear power, and climate change. U.S. papers played up the real-time meltdown between Clinton and Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

The two appeared before cameras on a trip to a new, energy-efficient office building in New Delhi, a scene in which Ramesh excoriated Western pressure on India to reduce emissions: “If this pressure is not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours”–a reference to a trade provision in the climate bill narrowly voted out of the House of Representatives last month. The New York Times and the Washington Post note the eyebrows raised by U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern, who traveled with Clinton. The Times of India apparently headlined a story, “Climate man’s visit shocks India.” Indian leaders say they will not accept legally binding carbon cuts, unless the nation’s per capita emissions reach that of the West, an argument analyzed in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. Spending to put India on a low-carbon trajectory might run $7 billion to $12 trillion in 35 years, according to a projection by The Energy and Resources Institute.

Mean temperatures in India have risen by 0.52 degrees Celsius over the last century, lower than the roughly 0.78 degree global average rise (The Earth is warming faster at the poles than at the equator).

“The single biggest investment opportunity of the 21st century”: India’s private sector increasingly sees value in “clean tech.” Witness Reva Electric Car’s plans to mass produce $12,000 electric vehicles for sale in the West. Ajit Nazre, the KPCB partner in charge of India investments, gave an overview of trends there to VC Circle, which follows the venture capital community in India. Nazre, who laud clean tech in the quotation atop this paragraph, recounts the motivations for change there, which are far from unique: the worldwide discussion about mitigating against dangerous climate change; fossil fuel price volatility; clean tech entrepreneurship. Add to that mix, India is home to one-third of the world’s poor, in desperate need of electricity.

Cities cover two percent of humans’ land footprint–but are responsible for three-quarters of emissions. The Secretary of State isn’t the only Clinton interested in India. The Clinton Global Initiative, run by the former President, has teamed up with Microsoft to provide Indian cities with a free, Web-based tool, called Project 2 Degrees, to monitor their greenhouse gas emissions.

Attention to “geo-engineering” has grown in legitimacy this year, and research investment ideas range from the simple and mundane to the beautifully illustrated. The American Meteorological Society gave its (meticulously worded) blessing for research into re-engineering the global climate. Ideas abound. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu elaborated on why the world should paint its roofs white, in a TV interview with what a poll of dubious trustworthiness calls “the most trusted newscaster in America.” Scientists and engineers speculate on the effectiveness of shooting disks into strategic position between the Earth and Sun, to block light.

Many of 21st century big investments will be small steps, and unfortunately difficult for media to recklessly dramaticize. Climate change begins at home, according to a British report on energy inefficiency in the U.K. Such mundane “climate solutions” as installing replacement pipes and water-saving faucets could reduce the carbon emissions from water heating by 30 percent. Why aren’t home-improvement experts in the forefront of lobbying in every national capital?

All Politics Is Vocal: International preparations for the Copenhagen talks step up, as U.S. senators prepare to step out for their August recess.

Some observers are more sanguine than others about the prospects of an international climate agreement this year. Hopeful is the chairman of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Michael Zammit. AFP files a brief interview with Zammit, who says he is emboldened by the new U.S. administration’s shift in climate policy. Note the last line, which makes this report a textbook example of how to bury the lede. Also upbeat, sort of, is tiny Tuvalu, which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2020.

The U.S. Senate will come back to a hyper-busy fall schedule, with Barbara Boxer expected to introduce the climate bill around Sept. 8 and the nation groping its way through the health care debate. Battle lines are growing firmer.  The NYT suggests in an editorial that the Senate close two loopholes in the House bill, one that grandfathers existing power plants out of the Clean Air Act, and another that, the paper says, weakens offsets. Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggested that climate legislation have an “off-ramp,” should regulations become too onerous for the economy; the administration stepped up its arguments for how farmers will thrive under a climate program.

California farmers have a bright future, according to a new report by the Pacific Institute, which DotEarth takes to task for not taking political realities into account, particularly amid predicted droughts in the West.

Will-ing Won’t Make It So: If a rank-and-file reporter–that large mammal species nearly as close to extinction as polar bears–showed the aloofness toward facts displayed by WP columnist George Will now four times this year, he would be asked to clean out his desk. The Post has already printed several corrective responses to Will: an op-ed piece by science journalist Chris Mooney; a letter by Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization; an editorial plausibly inspired by Will’s errors; and a news article–in the Washington Post–that explicitly smacks down his errors on Arctic Sea ice melt. Today, Will’s column pokes fun at the international climate negotiation process, which comes naturally if you believe that atmospheric monitoring is a religious activity. Will doesn’t veer off into fact-checking slumber until the end of the piece, when he cites the scientific reasoning Mark Steyn, a National Review writer who determined that global warming halted in 1998. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, who has swept up after Will all year, turns in this fine response.

Still No Operating Manual: Futurist thinkers, such as R. Buckminster Fuller, laid down ideas for what eventually became the environmental movement, by applying thoughts about space flight to the Earth itself. If three people, say, can fit in a tin can flung at the Moon, as they did 40 years ago this week, how many people can the Earth hold? Writers of all stripes are returning to that basic question.

Politicians and advocates routinely call for an “Apollo program for climate change,” often without evaluating the aptness of the comparison. With Apollo, the federal government was the entrepreneur, inventor, engineer, and customer. That’s a small step compared with the suggested task at hand–slowly reconfiguring a global economy powered largely by fossil fuels, with millions of entrepreneurs and billions of customers. Now, that’s a “mission.” That’ll keep everyone busy. That’d be–if we get there–a giant leap for mankind.

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.

Pools of Oil, Plumes of Gas

NI logoFirst Things First: The Washington-to-Beijing diplomatic shuttle shows no sign of slowing down. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke visited China this week to prod collaboration on clean energy technology. Chu announced the U.S. would contribute $15 million to a partnership that will study how to capture carbon dioxide emissions and trap them underground. The Wall Street Journal‘s “Environmental Capital” blogger Keith Johnson sums up mutual perceptions nicely by citing headlines in his paper (“Chu Warns China on Emissions”) and the China Daily (“Steven Chu: U.S. Ready to Lead on Climate Change”).

The New York Times reports that China is taking the lead on clean energy. The Washington Post surveys business trends there and in other Asian nations, places that “could outpace the programs in Obama’s economic stimulus package or in the House climate bill.” A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory official agrees that the U.S. is already left behind in some areas. And the number of U.S. “green jobs” is on the uptick–thanks to enterprising foreign firms.

The U.S. energy industry delivered a surprise this week. Exxon announced a plan to spend $600 million on research into fuel manufactured from algae. These simple plants, which include pond scum and seaweed, are a darling of many scientists and venture capital firms. Exxon’s investment further boosts the fortunes of maverick scientist Craig Venter, whose Synthetic Genomics is a partner in the project. Just a few years ago, Exxon’s previous CEO called ethanol “moonshine,” denigrating such projects, although it should be pointed out that moonshine is largely ethanol.

Count your carbs, count your carbon: Sweden assumed the presidency of the European Union earlier this month. The nation has had a carbon tax since the early 1990s, and continues to take the climate initiative, which now extends to food labeling.

With food or anything else, counting carbs is tricky business. Every facet of the climate story this week demonstrates why. In perhaps the most direct example, the Securities and Exchange Commission will take “a very serious look” at if or how to mandate that publicly traded companies disclose their climate risks.

Elsewhere, economic modeling spats continue. In California, small-business groups funded a study that suggests that, uh, small businesses will lose more than $180 billion in output –10 percent of the total–as a result of the state’s climate law. The California Air Resources Board says the study posits the climate law would bring no savings from increased efficiency or benefits from innovation and entrepreneurship, a supposition that “contradicts the track record of three decades” of state history.

Scientists are in the profession of keeping other scientists honest, theoretically. Computer simulations are such an easy activity to squawk at, scientists themselves do, in the most rarefied places, when they see less-than-rigorous studies published. As commentary on niche modeling, Nature publishes this paper that simulates the effects of climate change on Bigfoot habitats in North America.

The Washington Post runs another op-ed that pretends that climate change does not exist. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pens this op-ed. She writes, “Westerners literally sit on mountains of oil and gas.” Climate Post usually thinks of mountains as solid, oil as liquid, and gas as gas. The latter two phases of matter seem harder to sit on.

Palin quotes Warren Buffett, the famed investor, describing predicted burdens the bill will have on low-income Americans. Buffett himself comes under scrutiny elsewhere. Bloomberg Columnist Eric Pooley untangles the assumptions in Buffett’s statements and those of David Sokol, chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

The next day, the WP ran an editorial supportive of the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, last week, possibly to balance the decision to run Palin’s op-ed the day before.  Guardian columnist, and now backseat economist, George Monbiot takes a calculator to the aspirational agreements struck last week among G8 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and prevent more than two degrees C of warming. The developed world would meet their targets in part by offsetting their emissions with credits generated by projects in the developing world. To generate enough offset credits, Monbiot calculates, developing nations would have to reduce their emissions by 125 percent.

Climate legislation allows regulated firms to meet their carbon caps by “offsetting” emissions–buying pollution credits generated by (mostly) forestry and agriculture projects. A comprehensive Greenwire article places offsets within the wider context of how markets can find efficient ways to protect ecosystem services–the many natural processes that clean water, or air, shuttle nutrients about, or cool the climate. Two Nicholas Institute colleagues are cited in the piece.

Summer Days:Exceptional drought” sears central and southern Texas, draining crops and straining herds. Just one of 12 boat ramps at Lake Travis, near Austin, can reach water, which is down 40 feet. Plus side: Young children can wade safely in nearby river.

Officials, scientists, and at least one reporter in Macon, Georgia, have read the White House’s June report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which predicts a future of twice as many 90-degree days, with the hottest days 10 degrees hotter than usual. “When I read those numbers, I think about what that means to me and my family and my lifestyle, and that’s a very different picture of the South than what I grew up with,” a Georgia Tech scientist said.

The summer sun has desiccated San Joaquin Valley in California, and the U.S. need only look south to consider the effects of poorly managed water.

Dryness is crippling farming in India’s massive farming sector. Bhopal residents, all 1.8 million of them, are allowed 30 minutes of water every other day, in rationing undertaken in October. Downpours and flooding in Mumbai couldn’t help Mumbai, where officials cut water use by 30 percent given a drop in lake levels.

BBC reports from Char Atra, a beleaguered island in the Ganges, where “hardcore poor” residents cope as they can with natural hydrology. Villagers have rebuilt one woman’s home because last year, “there was so much water in her hut that she had to tie her children to their bed at night to stop them from rolling and drowning.”

Does he still count?: Love him or hate him, leading NASA climatologist James Hansen has become an embattled figure. ClimateWire turns in a thoughtful analysis of just how relevant the grandfather of global warming is or isn’t in his activist period, a skeptical complement to the lighter fare published by the New Yorker recently.

Hansen and Al Gore held a colloquium in Hell, which itself, apparently, has seen a 3.8 degree average temperature rise since 1955. “[O]ccupants of Hell who in 1955 were standing night and day in boiling pitch up to their knees report that, owing to the expansion of pitch at higher temperatures, they now must endure the torment all the way up to mid-thigh, or even higher, during Hell’s warmer seasons,” writes Ian Frazier, a satirist, the New Yorker’s tongue-in-cheek “Shouts and Murmurs column.”