Ewe Betcha

NI logoFirst Things First: Conflicting early reports obscured events at a major international summit in L’Aquila, Italy. The Group of Eight has apparently resolved to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, but disagreed on thorny “mid-term targets,” to be reached by 2020 or so. And key players, such as the United States, have no mandatory climate programs yet to enforce this goal. Unimpressed, China, India, and other developing nations declined to offer their own specific targets. Time is running out before the world convenes end-of-the-year climate talks in Copenhagen, but efforts to salvage some kind of international program continues.

It’s also running out on a longer-term clock, according to scientific recommendations for prompt, aggressive pollution reductions. The G-8 nations acknowledged that warming should not proceed beyond a 2 degree C (3.6 degree F) threshold. That’s the thumbnail mark past which many scientists say positive feedbacks can drive the climate toward truly unpredictable change. (Global average temperatures have risen nearly 0.8 degrees C since record-keeping began; the atmosphere is locked in to another 0.6 degree rise.) The New York Times this morning offers the most cutting assessment of the situation, with developing nations throwing out their proposed goals, but agreeing to make undefined, “meaningful” improvements.

If You Are Reading This, You’re on the List: International climate talks follow guidelines set up in the early 1990s. They divide the world into developed and developing nations and set out different roles for each in addressing the problem. Bridging the rich-poor divide is central to global agreement, which is why the U.S. and China are in such frequent talks (to the European Union’s chagrin).

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishes the sketch of a new paradigm.  Stephen Pacala and colleagues suggest that the worldwide distribution of the top billion or so richest individuals drive national targets. Under this approach, the number of high per-capita emitters in a country would shape its climate goals. The authors–who include Princeton’s Pacala and Robert Socolow of “stabilization wedge” fame–argue that their scheme fairly treats all high-emitting individuals the same, regardless of nationality.

Act II, Scene i: In Washington, the climate debate shifts to the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and others opened hearings. Four top administration officials called for what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu labeled “a new industrial revolution” in “sustainable, clean energy,” including nuclear power — a central goal of Republicans that rankles many on the left. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) said his state’s reliance on coal causes him to take potential price rises into account, a far from unique position among Midwestern Democrats.

Issues potentially fatal to the bill have already risen, in agriculture, international trade, and coal-fired electricity. (Legislators also vote with their own dollars, like anyone else.) EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the panel the U.S. is falling behind other nations in clean-energy investment, a statement buoyed by this New York Times piece about China’s surge in manufacturing wind turbines. At first fast-tracking legislation, Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) EPW Committee will now take up the bill formally after the Senate’s summer recess.

Oh, behave!: A Wall Street Journal profile of Obama’s new regulatory chief, Cass Sunstein, is a good foray into behavioral economics, a favorite topic of this White House. Sunstein, the bestselling co-author of Nudge and Harvard law professor, is waiting Senate confirmation to be head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Behavioral economics upends common assumptions about human rationality and decision-making, and its implications have moved into government. Obama wrote shortly after taking office, “Far more is now known about regulation — not only when it is justified, but also what works and what does not.” Sunstein’s research has led him to skepticism about dominant approaches to confront global warming, an approach balanced elsewhere in the administration.

A 2007 energy efficiency law set new targets for lighting, thought to be a death knell for conventional incandescent bulbs. The power of rules to shape economic behavior was on display in this NYT piece about how the new law accelerated competition to build a better lightbulb. Compact fluorescents, heralded as less expensive and longer-lasting, don’t always work well with dimmers and in some cases contain poisonous amounts of mercury. Light emitting diodes are expensive but becoming competitive because of their long lifetimes. Inventors are shrinking Thomas Edison’s conventional bulb. Still harder might be to convince light bulb manufacturers pre-install energy-efficient bulbs lamps and fixtures to guide consumer choice.

Newspaper Uses “S”-Word: Governments and firms around the nation are addressing complicated energy matters, evident in this (South Carolina) State editorial, aptly headlined, “Everyone must sacrifice on coal plant plan.” A coal-fired generator planned for the Pee Dee River basin is desirable because of the state’s demand for power and “[w]ith power relatively cheap in South Carolina, there’s too little incentive to cut back.” The paper argues that “In the long term, whether this plant is ever built or not, we as a state must develop a multi-pronged approach to energy that includes conservation as well as traditional and new energy sources.”

Tough decisions abound. In Kentucky, two utilities have lowered initial estimates of rate increases. In Montana, officials may succumb to selling off rights to mine rich, untapped coal seams, the Associated Press reports. In Spain, local politics and economics knock heads over an aging nuclear plant.

If Ewe Are Reading This: Evolution and global warming meet in the hills of Scotland. A report in Science this week documents how successive generations of Soay sheep are diminishing in size. With less severe winters, the reproductive advantage accorded larger, “better-insulated” sheep has melted with each early spring. Climate change is thought to be a factor in this population shift. The sheep are not alone. The Times of London describes the intersection of climate change and evolution: “In virtually every population that has been studied in detail, evolutionary changes have been observed.”

Columnist in a Downard Trend: The WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel turns in another breathless climate change column. Climate Post cares not to weigh in about how or if any administration should treat a report in the vein of that submitted by EPA environmental economist Alan Carlin, her column’s subject. But certainly, given the level of (im)precision at which she’s writing, Strassel is factually incorrect to leave uncorrected statements such as, “The analysis noted that global temperatures were on a downward trend.”

Her error is rooted in the tricky subject of climate variability. Climate is very much a net phenomenon, an sum of various “forcings” that each nudge the atmosphere warmer or cooler. It’s a little bit like this: Imagine you are boiling water to make pasta, but need to add another two cups. When you add the cooler tap water, the temperature in the pot drops a bit. But t you would never conclude that the temperature drop indicates the burner isn’t working. Saying that the Earth is cooling is akin to saying that the stovetop water has stopped heating when the extra water is added. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a memo (pdf) clarifying this mistake. With El Nino gaining steam in the Pacific, temperatures for the next two years or so are expected to be warmer than they otherwise would be with “only” global warming.

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.

Has the political climate changed?

NI logoFirst things first: The U.S. House of Representatives last week narrowly voted to overhaul the nation’s energy economy by limiting industrial greenhouse gas emissions, boosting efficiency, and developing renewable electricity sources. The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act would limit, or “cap,” annual pollution and allow industry to buy and sell, or “trade,” credits in a new and tightly regulated commodity market. The vote, 219-212, sends an equivocal message to the Senate, where advocates face an even tougher sell. Eight Republicans voted with the majority and 44 Democrats broke with their party leaders.

To secure votes on complicated bills, legislators have been known to adopt a sort of “trade-and-cap” approach to deal-making. The bill’s sponsors and Democratic leadership traded promises – of emission allowances, regulatory authority, trade protection — for enough yea votes to cap the nays at 217. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, commented on the scale of Democratic horse-trading: “It’s unprecedented, but at least it’s transparent.”

President Barack Obama took the unusual step of inviting in newspaper energy reporters for an on-the-record interview about the House climate bill. Calling the passage “an extraordinary first step” (identically in the ledes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times), Obama criticized a provision that under certain conditions would require the president to levy a tariff on imports from countries that do not regulate their greenhouse gases like the U.S. Trade barriers, he said, would send “a protectionist signal,” at a moment when the U.S. and trading partners are trying to jumpstart the global economy. In a sign of the times, the Washington Post quotes a comment Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made on Twitter.

Representatives had barely vacated the House floor before observers turned their attention to the upper house of Congress, which will begin work on its version of the bill later this month. Twenty senators–led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)–have been meeting weekly to come up with an approach to Senate legislation. With the two top jobs in the executive branch filled by former senators, the White House is expected to play a bigger role in Senate negotiations.

E&E News counts 45 or so U.S. senators who are likely “yes” votes for a climate bill, well short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. Some 23 more have reservations about how the bill would affect their states, particularly Midwestern Democrats.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been at work on an energy efficiency-and-security bill (official summaries here), though it does not have a cap-and-trade element. A climate piece will be taken up beginning July 27 in Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The Energy Outlook blog muses on the possible intersection of these two initiatives.

It’ll help! It’ll hurt!: Beyond the national media, newspaper coverage of the ACES bill stayed close to home, reminiscent of how sports sections give more space to local teams than out-of-town rivals. The Kansas City Business Journal runs a short piece offering a local utility’s warnings about the legislation. The piece cites one private estimate of the bill’s eventual cost per family, $1,050 a year on average — an order of magnitude higher than Congressional budget Office and Environmental Protection Agency analyses. The Sunshine State is struggling simultaneously with the promise of solar power and threats to jobs from increased energy prices.

Lobbying from coal states led to reduced targets for energy from renewable sources in the House bill. The original goal of 25 percent by 2020 fell to 15 percent by the floor vote. Experts in Wyoming ponder where change holds promise and where harm. A short piece earlier in the week in the Casper Star-Tribune provides a snapshot of climate opinion in the U.S.’s coal capital: “[State Rep. Tom Lockhart] acknowledged many in Wyoming still doubt the science of global warming, but said the Legislature came to terms several years ago with the fact that the issue had been decided politically on the national and international level. ‘The political tide has changed and the market has changed,’ Lockhart said.”

The climate bill’s passage evoked to Republicans the Clinton administration’s failed 1993 push for an energy tax (per B.T.U). Some Democratic congressmen lost their seats over the B.T.U. tax in the 1994 Republican rout. The NYT’s Carl Hulse collects some nice details from last week, including Republicans chanting “B.T.U.! B.T.U!” upon passage. He asks, “Has the political climate changed since 1993?”, and tees up climate and energy as a 2010 midterm election issue. Indicative of change in the media climate, the Times’ Andrew Revkin posts this at his DotEarth blog, adding context to Hulse’s informative but narrow political story (Revkin: “There are enormous differences between the two situations and initiatives.”).

Reuters India picks up a Washington datelined story about the House action, suggesting it as a signal to the international community that the U.S. is serious about negotiation. Events in India, however, suggest the feeling is less than mutual. India’s environment minister said this week: “India will not accept any emission-reduction target — period. This is a non-negotiable stand.”

The notion that the U.S. legislation contains potential trade barriers could bring India and Pakistan together. They are in discussion about unifying their international positions on climate change.

Mind the gap: As global warming enters the public domain, business competitiveness has become as significant a driver of behavorial change as climate science, opening a usually harmless “climate gap” in understanding between scientists and virtually everyone else. Business drives PriceWaterhouseCooper’s recent report, Capitalizing on a Climate of Change, which lays out the ever-growing business case for understanding climate change: “Companies in the United States face a major challenge in developing a comprehensive strategy to address climate change because of the lack of a national regulatory framework establishing a set of rules for the reduction of carbon-based emissions.”

The gap is particularly wide for the WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel. She writes about Steve Fielding, an Australian senator who voted against a climate change bill after the Obama administration failed to answer his request to help him better understand climate science. Strassel’s column cheers what she describes as a worldwide surge in climate skepticism. What particular study or element of climate science deserves skepticism is unclear. She writes, “The inconvenient truth is that the earth’s temperatures have flat-lined since 2001, despite growing concentrations of CO2. Peer-reviewed research has debunked doomsday scenarios about the polar ice caps, hurricanes, malaria, extinctions, rising oceans.”  The questions of ice caps, hurricanes, etc. seem more complicated than Strassel allows. Often, the big question is framed as how to evaluate the probability of catastrophic events under large uncertainty.

Michael Jackson, climate metaphor?: Deepak Chopra eulogizes Michael Jackson, who in the days before his death had been working excitedly on a song about “the environment,” loosely inferred by the Telegraph to mean climate change.

As he aged, the eccentric King of Pop built an imaginary fortress to protect himself from mega-stardom. Stripped out of context, a passage on this topic from Chopra’s heartfelt piece sounds like it could pass as commentary about the inability of  a large economy to recognize and adapt to change: “This compromise with reality gradually became unsustainable. He went to strange lengths to preserve 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

Deal or no deal

NI logoFirst things first: U.S. representatives may head into Independence Day recess with their climate work done for the moment. House leadership fast-tracked the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) after a breakthrough agreement Monday night between its co-sponsors and a powerful hold-out representing farmers and rural districts. A vote on the house floor could come as early as tomorrow.* The momentum shift drew President Barack Obama back into the fray, where he was soon peppered with questions over how much his energy policy is expected to reduce U.S. oil imports in the long haul.

Predicted economic costs of climate policy drive debate on the Hill. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the ACES Act could cost households $175 a year on average by 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency updated its assessment of an earlier version of the bill, finding that it could cost households between $80 and $111 a year on average; lower-income families could save money. The Washington Post addresses confusion about competing cost estimates for the bill. Fireworks previously ensued between Rep. John Boener (R-Ohio) and MIT professor John Reilly, whose study became the source for the former’s contention that the bill would cost Americans $3,128 a year in 2015. Overshadowing the whole cost-benefit debate is anyone’s inability to systematically value the benefits of action. This sentence from the Post strikes near the heart of the whole cost controversy: “The CBO, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, said it did not take into account any indirect benefits of slowing climate change, which are substantial but difficult to quantify.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was apparently listening to the concerns of House agricultural interests whose leadership withheld support for ACES bill for several weeks. Hoping to prevent such an impasse, Reid has begun to invite farm state senators into early debate in that chamber. The Senate may pick up the ACES Act as its starting point for deliberation. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will start working on climate change in her Environmental and Public Works Committee July 27. Reid says he would like committee work done by mid-September.

U.S. climate negotiators in Mexico nixed calls from developing nations that the U.S. reduce its emissions much more dramatically than Congress or the administration has publicly considered. Major economies moved toward an “aspirational goal” of halving global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with talks to continue in Italy next month.

Choose your words carefully: Switching the word “finally” to “initially” in the House climate bill potentially relieved 100 coal-burning power plants from greenhouse gas emissions regulations, Politico reports. Originally, only plants that are now “finally” permitted–or have survived any legal challenges–were exempt. Now, “initially” permitted plants, which have only begun the regulatory journey and are much more numerous, would be grandfathered in, too.

How can mere mortals catch such changes? (High-pitched) blog posts at the Sunlight Foundation drum against an age-old problem: no one, with the possible exception of this guy, has time to read and thoughtfully consider 1,000-page bills in the brief hours or days between release and vote. As a quick guide, the Energy and Commerce Committee did issue a broad map of changes here [pdf].

And now, the star of our show: Sunlight abounds in climate world this week, just as the Northern Hemisphere spins its way into summer.

Developments in “clean energy,” particularly solar technologies, occur at every scale, from U.S. neighborhoods to cities to states. This month saw an intercontinental project. A consortium of German firms and European official groups and nongovernmental organizations will invest $555 billion to build sunlight concentrators in northern African desert. (An earlier report had the power wired to Europe.)

Much of India sees the sun nearly 300 days a year. Yet its nascent solar industry exports two-thirds of its products to Europe, China, and North America. To date producers have paid less attention to the domestic market. That’s changing. Rising demand, falling costs, and government support have primed the market for growth. Industry leader Tata BP Solar is expanding into rural communities, in partnerships with banks and telecoms, with early success. In the province of Uttar Pradesh, one bank replaced its diesel-powered back-up generators with photovoltaics, which led to the financing of home lighting for 8,000 homes.

For most of the world, “going green” is less a motivator to adopt new energy technologies than “going electric” is. The Christian Science Monitor parachutes into Bangladesh to document the work of Grameen Shakti, the environmental wing of Grameen Bank, the microloan pioneer and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. The group distributes photovoltaic-and-battery systems for a 15 to 20 percent down payment. The balance is paid off in two or three years. Some shopkeepers see their monthly energy bills–the price of candles are cited as an example–cut in half. More than 200,000 solar panels now pump electrons into the service of customers around the country.

Private investors could inject $10 billion into China’s solar sector, thanks in part to government cash incentives cut the cost of installation in half. The moves are expected to boost domestic demand for solar in China, and poise the Eastern giant to compete with German manufacturers.

Back in Washington, green business writer Marc Gunther attends a solar-industry press breakfast, where Dow Corning and other manufacturers read out the wish list they are giving to Congress. It includes a permanent tax credit for manufacturers; a mandate for utilities to build a legislated percentage of renewable electricity sources into their mix (hence the name, “renewable electricity standard”); and mandates to buy renewable-generated power at a premium (“feed-in tariffs”).

Next time, 196 one-pagers…: Media offered little follow-up to last week’s 196-page White House report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The Grand Island Independent registers this story about what the report predicts for the future of Nebraska’s water supply — now the most irrigated in the U.S., and in some places, over-irrigated. The pace of water use from the High Plains aquifer already outstrips natural replenishment. The federal report’s prediction of continued rising thermometers, faster evaporation, and more drought, will add pressure to reverse the state’s irrigation drive.

For those dedicated souls who have already marked-up their White House science report, the International Alliance of Research Universities and U.K. government provide additional leisure reading.

Coal my lawyer!: The New Yorker files a largely sympathetic profile of James Hansen (sub. req.), the monumental climate scientist who has led NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for nearly three decades. Hansen has led the pack of scientists studying global warming for three decades. In the past two years he has taken aggressive policy positions–atypical for a scientist–that have made him a controversial public figure in some circles. (This week he, actress Darryl Hannah, and former FDR and Truman aide Ken Hechler were arrested in a civil disobedience protest against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.) Elizabeth Kolbert drops this admonishment into the profile:

There are lots of ways to lose an audience with a discussion of global warming, and new ones, it seems, are being discovered all the time.

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

* Any readers whose exclusive source of news is Climate Post should make sure to tune in next week for the outcome. If you can’t abide suspense, please visit any of the fine content purveyors in the right-hand column of the home page.

Gimme your wallet–or else the forest here gets it

NI logoThe Obama administration this week released a 196-page plain-language report that describes predicted future impacts of climate change on the U.S. The report comes during a week of inconclusive negotiation among key House lawmakers on climate legislation, and as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passes what could be the third energy bill in four years. “Green jobs” start to wear a human face.

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States documents predictions and changes already observed in the U.S. and around the world, including higher temperatures, “reduced frost days, increased frequency and intensity of heavy downpours, a rise in sea level, and reduced snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice.” Many concerns come down to the idea that people are predicted to find themselves living in the wrong place. “It is difficult and expensive to alter or replace infrastructure designed to last for decades (such as buildings, bridges, roads, airports, reservoirs, and ports) in response to continuous and/or abrupt climate change,” the report states.

The Guardian reports that a San Francisco media consultancy oversaw release of the report. The document is “scrubbed of the usual scientific jargon,” and its release is timed to support the climate bill in the House. That the White House had outside media help on a major climate report might be seen either as a crutch or as a breakthrough. Either way, many scientists have long had a disadvantage in communicating their work and findings, in part because professional standards and practices differ rather wildly from both traditional media and what might be called “normal” human interpersonal communication. Science talk — climate-science talk notoriously — is marked by circumspection, caveats, technical descriptions of physical evidence, and statistical and probabilistic mathematics. Efforts are underway to humanize public climate communication, including the fruits of behavioral research and a recent deep dive into how each of the “Six Americas” [pdf] understand climate change.

In Europe, the climate may already be morphing along two paths. The European Union body charged with protecting the Alps released its second report, documenting bifurcation in the climate of Europe. North of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, Europeans are seeing more flooding and mud slides. Southeastern Alpine communities report a drop in rainfall — 10 percent over the last century. Marco Onida, head of the Alpine body: “The Alps are the water tower of Europe. But increasingly much of the water is not reaching the places downstream where it is needed, for ecosystems, agriculture and energy production.”

What we talk about when we talk about climate: The NYT Magazine lays bare the device — of climate change and many other issues — with the day-glo orange headline “INFRASTRUCTURE!* (*It’s more exciting than you think, actually).” The stories have nothing to do with climate change, save a few references to post-Kyoto Paris. But focusing attention to inspiring, high-functioning replacements for decaying infrastructure would serve a number of issues. Every week, the climate press tries to do more subtly what the NYT hit directly last weekend. “Rebuilding infrastructure” might be one way to organize many of the most consequential story trends of the day — if there were a nicer word for it. As the White House science assessment suggests, climate change might leave much of our current infrastructure might in the wrong place.

Infrastructure change can be local and quiet. The governor of Kolkata, India, undertook an energy-savings program at his 27-acre residence, formerly the seat of the British Empire in India. The actions cut the government’s electricity bill by 15 percent and CO2 emissions from electricity by 18 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the reductions came from behavioral change. Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi told the Times of India that his grandfather–Mahatma Gandhi–spoke frequently and at length about proper levels of consumption.

Infrastructure change can also be both monumental — and an experiment. The Wall Street Journal takes on “geo-engineering” — cooling the atmosphere through large-scale projects, such as the release of reflective sulfate aerosols, cloud farming, or Climate Post suggests, ask the artist Christo to wrap the poles in reflective Mylar. The Washington Post runs a geo-engineering op-ed by Samuel Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute, also pegged to a National Academy of Sciences conference on the subject.

Personal and community efforts, geo-engineering projects, and even national laws in and of themselves will not prevent dangerous manmade warming, but all of them, aggregated, would be powerful, according to number-crunching (and Chinese Politburo satire) at the Green Grok.

Can’t see the forest through the hyperlinks: Many people familiar with climate change know that deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of the increase in greenhouse gases. Major media have shown increased interest in deforestation’s contribution to global warming, particularly efforts to fund rainforest conservation through global carbon credit markets. A recent New York Times editorial supported  inclusion of forest measures left out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Economist looks seriously and critically at the issue, pointing out its promise — keeping forests in tact may be the simplest way to reduce greenhouse gases — and its difficulty — the world community’s interest in saving rainforests conflicts with local economic incentives. [The Nicholas Institute just published a comprehensive package explaining the issues, options, and economics for global forest efforts.]

The rainforest story this week stretches from pristine Cameroon ecosystems to global financial centers. Mongabay learns that a 3,200-sq. mi. Cameroon rainforest will be gutted in 30 days for logging and iron mining, its recently documented population of lowland gorillas, elephants, mandrills, and chimpanzees dislocated and left to die, unless conservationists can find project financing. “We have 30 days,” a conservationist working on the issue said. “It’s a race against time.” (Cameroon to elephants: “Gimme your wallet–or else…”) Large British investment houses are throwing their support behind greater disclosure in financial documents of firms’ roles in deforestation, Reuters reports. The Forest Footprint Disclosure Project is designed to encourage Fortune 500 companies to account for increasing financial risks associated with reducing forest cover. A Financial Times blog post explains forests’ plight in the context of what you had for breakfast.

Two men who have never met: Two stories this week together demonstrate what might be called the climate gap, or the difference in comfort levels with climate science that scientists and observers have and, well, most everyone else. A NYT overview of the synthesis report concludes with Michael MacCracken, a lead author of the previous U.S. assessment and adviser to the current one, saying, “There is not much that is new.” Yet this piece from the Deseret News suggests that scientific assessments are far from universally read and accepted. Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert tells a Western Governors Association panel, “I’ve heard people argue on both sides of the issue, people I have a high regard for. People say man’s impact is minimal, if at all, so it appears to me the science is not necessarily conclusive… What are we doing to bring people together? Is there a hidden agenda out there? Help me understand the science.”

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

An eye-popping thrill ride!

NI logoFor those mercifully far enough away not to know, the “Capital beltway”  is a looping highway, Interstate 495, the way many metro Washington residents ride to work. “Inside the beltway” isn’t coincident with Washington, DC. It also connotes a mythical place unrestrained by geography, a state of mind where consequential details of legislation attract and hold attention, sometimes for years on end. Whether you work inside or outside the beltway determines whether you think there was climate news this week in the capital, and by extension, Bonn.

Insider baseball: Reps. Henry Waxman  (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee chairmen who authored the climate bill now moving through the House, spent the week explaining the 900-plus-page draft to colleagues. At this writing, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) just began an agriculture committee hearing into how the bill might affect rural communities. Peterson and more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress threaten to hold their support from the bill unless Waxman and Markey address their concerns about equitable treatment of farmers. Republicans introduced an energy bill in the House Wednesday that emphasizes nuclear power and would set as a target the construction of 100 new reactors over the next two decades, 100 more than the U.S. has built in three decades.

Talks in Beijing between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters, China and the U.S., overshadowed international negotiators in Bonn, who are wrapping up two weeks of United Nations-guided talks, according to the Economist.

Climate chatterers have ample material with which to choose how to think about developments in China. That’s not because the ideology behind different publications support different facts — although that does happen with greater frequency in the U.S. media. It’s because there are so many facts coming out of China, it’s hard to keep track of all the  trends. Here are two.  The Guardian buttonholes a national development officer who boasts that by 2020 China will produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources — on par with Europe. That’s not mutually exclusive with the continued rise in Chinese coal use — 1.8 percent higher in 2008 than in 2007, according to Bloomberg. A lively debate continues in scientific and policy circles about whether the rise of coal use in China is significantly reversing a three-decade long global decline in the carbon-intensity of industrial fuels.

“Outsider” baseball: Without a simple beltway story unifying the news, media coverage becomes a patchwork of simultaneous episodes in the climate saga. Disinterested observers might wish for a national or international climate regime, not because they care about a particular approach, but because it might help impose one central storyline on the whole climate space, its politics, policy, business, and science (Sort of the way that some argue for a national climate policy to  unify efforts in California, the Northeast, and the West).

Instead, this week stories play out in the Midwest and U.K., in Texas and China, as many people around the world confront the climate challenge locally. Two stories from Hawaii beg the question, why does this matter to anyone else? By any traditional standard, they don’t. Some 50,000 people on Oahu have been given rebates for solar water heating systems that are expected to cut fossil-fuel bills significantly. On Maui, a German-born entrepreneur is pushing the state’s utility regulator to adopt what’s called inside the beltway a “feed-in tariff,” a law that would offer homes powered by renewable electricity a fixed price per kilowatt, over a 20-year contract and guarantee a connection to the grid so homes and businesses can send electricity into the network. This nano-scale Hawaiian news suggests that forces other than politics are shaping energy transformation on the margins. A beltway insider recently suggested to Climate Post that climate legislation is having its make-or-break moment in Congress, and if it fails will vanish after that — poof! This week’s global headlines suggest that the potential for new-energy entrepreneurship — and, on the downside, risk of catastrophic climate change — will ploddingly change behavior.

Tilting at exploration platforms: Fights over wind power are a common trend this week in the Midwest. Chicago private and civic leaders fear that a national carbon regime is likely to raise electricity prices in the region, but is also likely to ignite the rust belt’s economic renewal. Midwest governors received a report commissioned in 2007 charting a cap-and-trade program to help six states reduce their emissions. Wisconsin is emblematic of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back success of wind power in the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Confusion about what to do isn’t limited to the Midwest, where this week’s reports document conflicts within neighborhoods and between interest groups. Greenwire catches a Monmouth University poll suggesting that individuals are conflicted within about energy issues: The number of Mid-Atlantic residents who support offshore drilling rose from 33 percent to 46 percent in two years. More than 80 percent support offshore wind farms if they can’t be seen from land — and 67 percent do if they are visible.

Whither wind? Scientists cited in an AP story suggest that average wind speeds across the U.S. might be slowing. Roger Pielke Jr. takes a bite out of the finding at over at Prometheus, and Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann parse the question at Real Climate.

The eclectic physicist Freeman Dyson has garnered increased attention in the last couple of years for his skeptical thinking about global warming, in a New York Review of Books essay, a New York Times Magazine cover story, and this week an interview with Yale e360. In the latter piece, Dyson provides abundant caveats for his views, namely that he doesn’t know “technical facts.”  Dyson’s general attacks on computer modeling studies of climate change exclude the “preponderance of  evidence,” physical evidence, that suggest big changes are afoot.

Prefer glazed donuts, please: When a proposed law as consequential as the climate bill (few are more consequential) passes through a major committee en route to the House floor, prominent commentators forge new opinions in real time. When mainstream thinkers take on previously cloistered policy, it’s a good time for both communities to take notes. Take newly minted Pulitzer columnist Eugene Robinson‘s Washington Post column about so-called clean coal technology. He introduces the topic with this sentence:

The plan is to meet ambitious targets for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases through development and widespread use of an unproven technology known as — prepare for your eyes to glaze over — carbon capture and storage. [Emphasis added.]

Hawaiian solar water heaters, Ohio street dirt and “pulp liquor,carbon capture and storage, and Mississipi Delta bamboo industry expansion (it exists) might not qualify as an eye-popping thrill ride, but it appears to be the ride we’re on.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Insitute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat

Bonn Voyage!

NI logoThe U.S. Congress fast-tracks climate legislation, international negotiators hash through the first “negotiating text” for year-end global talks in Germany, and big businesses start counting their carbon. The pile of climate stories this week climbed faster than predicted New England sea levels.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act – aka Waxman-Markey, aka ACES, aka H.R. 2454 – may reach the House floor by the July 4th recess, if Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new legislative push proceeds as she intends. She has charged the eight committees evaluating the legislation to complete their work by June 19, which may be a particular challenge for Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D – N.Y.) and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who have the most work to do on it. Chairman Peterson has said the bill deserves a close look to make sure the farm community is treated equitably.

Events on the Hill will shape the world’s reactions to White House policy at the COP15 climate change conference in December. In preparation, negotiators this week and next descend on Bonn, Germany, where nations have their first opportunity to react to the United Nations’ negotiating text, released last month. Diplomacy efforts continue to step up, in Bonn and elsewhere, with U.S. Special envoy on climate change Todd Stern visiting Beijing next week.

“How green is Obama, really?” asks Silicon India, in the headline to this short Indo-Asian News Service piece. It’s a sign of the times that international wire services are covering the U.S. Congress. But their readers will miss the magnitude of Congress’ task by offering as straight reporting judgments such as this: “[A] reluctant U.S. Congress is resisting even moderate cap-and-trade goals.” From inside-the-beltway, objectively speaking, things are moving quite rapidly for such a complex endeavor, however its goals are characterized.

With the climate bill out of its key committee, several newspapers stepped back recently and offered short explainers on a “cap-and-trade” climate system (the Wall Street Journal, McClatchy newspapers, the Financial Times). The Washington Post offered a fine effort that contains an interesting example of how space limitations in the news-article format can further muddle an already complex subject. Take this passage, about the potential per capita costs of the climate bill:

The EPA thinks it will fall between $98 and $140 per year, causing barely a stutter in the U.S. economy as a whole.

The Union of Concerned Scientists thinks the system will actually make money for families, since more efficient technologies will save on energy costs. But the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks it will cost big: $4,300 per family in a few decades.

This quick triptych suggests that three organizations looked at the same legislation in the same way and deduced a range of outcomes when in fact they were responding to varied legislative scenarios. The risk in presenting the material this way is that they have actually conducted different studies, with different initial assumptions, and that juxtaposing them so quickly adds distortion to simplicity. A broad Economist narrative of the U.S. climate debate cites only a Congressional Budget Office estimate, and glibly concludes, “If politicians pretend they can save the planet at no cost, they risk a backlash when people realize they were fibbing.”

Reduced carbonation?: Finding your carbon and reducing it is becoming the next big quest for big business. The Economist article, “A Green Revolution,” appears in a large section about rebuilding American business, a topic that won’t go away any time soon. The U.N. observes that in 2008, for the first time ever, clean tech drew more investment than fossil fuel power generation globally. Nearly six percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from 417 large companies – a percentage that many firms are trying to reduce their contributions to, BusinessWeek reports in a special package about carbon accounting. Coca-Cola officials assumed the company’s biggest contributions came from its truck fleet. But that’s before they discovered greenhouse-gas-rich refrigerants and electricity-hungry vending machines are responsible for five times more than its transport: 15 million metric tons of CO2 a year. “If we had never put pencil to paper and done the calculations, we might not have understood it ourselves – or believed it,” one official said.

The New York Times, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times also mark the launch of Hara, a new software start-up that helps companies, including Coca-Cola, track and reduce their emissions. Backed by the leading venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins (Al Gore sits on its board), Hara is the newest of several young companies offering large firms a step-up from the spreadsheets that have marked many carbon-reduction efforts to date.

Did everyone get the memo? A recent Gartner survey of 575 companies found that 13.6 percent of the firms didn’t know whether they had carbon management systems in place.

Drops to drink?: Two days before President Barack Obama deliver his major address about Middle East peace in Egypt, a Canadian non-profit issued a report highlighting concerns that climate change could exacerbate security threats in the embattled region. Already, AFP reports, drought forced 160 Syrian villages to relocate to cities in 2007-8. “Climate change could hold serious implications for regional security,” the report’s authors write.

The world’s rivers may already bear the marks of climate change, according to a new study in Environmental Science and Technology. Scientists assembled streamflow data, taken as far downstream as possible, from 925 rivers on all continents except Antarctica. The authors compared the data to a climate model and concluded that direct human effects on rivers (ie, drawing water from them) is small when compared with climate change from 1948-2004. Water levels dropped anywhere from 3 to 14 percent in some major rivers flowing into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Mississippi and some other rivers saw increased flow, as the result of changing rain and snow patterns. Empirical studies such as this can add gravity to even unrelated calls of concern. Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told a group in New York last month that warming means increased drought, desertification, and land degradation in her country.

Many unanswered questions… except that one: The Calgary Herald offers the most outdated story of the week, a run through the ideas of a visiting Israeli chemist. The story itself is of less concern (time being what it is) than the lede, which reads:

As the world continues to grapple with the issue of climate change, one question remains unanswered: Is global warming the result of human behaviour or is it part of a heating and cooling cycle that has gone on for millennia?

And it’s the absence of an answer to this question that is going to continue to bedevil industry and government alike for the foreseeable future.

In fact, global warming is largely the result of human behavior. IPCC scientists have said that there are nine chances out of 10 that greenhouse gases have caused global warming observed in the past 50 years. And they elaborated on these causes in a full chapter (pdf here) of its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report. But what these studies translate to for practical purposes is, yes, fossil-fuel powered industry and deforestation are the significant causes of global warming. “Industry and government alike” are “bedeviled by questions for the foreseeable future,” but these bedeviling questions instead concern, for example, the rate of ice melt in Greenland, how to transform the energy system, predicted drought in the American Southwest, and as the article does indicate, if carbon capture and storage will work on a global scale. It’s just one sign of the complexity of climate change that the simplest question – What’s going on?! – still eludes many well-meaning people who are simply trying to explain it.

–Eric Roston

Something Wrought in the State of Denmark?

NI logoThe word “Copenhagen” hangs over climate discussions everywhere from Washington to Wagga Wagga. That’s because in December the world travels to the Danish capital for the 15th Conference of Parties meeting, affectionately referred to as COP15. There, nations large and small hope to reach a new international agreement that would ratchet down global emissions beginning after 2012.

Expectations for a conclusive deal have diminished over the last several months. But negotiations of every stripe continue, and will accelerate through the summer and fall. This week saw nations, businesses, and advocacy groups ramp up activity.

Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, traveled to Paris, where he met with representatives from 15 other major economies and the European Union. Together these nations contribute more than 80 percent of industrial CO2 emissions. European officials pressed the U.S. for a stronger emissions reduction program than the one outlined in current climate legislation. Europe’s own goals are tied to the rest of the world. Leaders there have committed by 2020 to a 20 percent reduction in their emissions, below 1990 levels. If negotiators produce a new agreement in Copenhagen, the E.U. has vowed to raise that target to 30 percent.

Stern told his counterparts that pollution reductions below targets in the current House of Representatives climate bill are politically unfeasible: “We are jumping as high as the political system will tolerate.”

Sino the Times: China has issued draft car fuel economy standards tougher than those President Barack Obama announced last week, according to the New York Times. Chinese cars currently average about 35.8 miles per gallon and would be required to reach 42.2 mpg in 2015 (Obama’s new standard is 35.5 mpg by 2016). Chinese officials have yet to address a loophole large enough to drive a Hummer through: Standards apply only to cars produced in China — not imports.

In Beijing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told Chinese leaders that the “climate crisis is game-changing for the U.S.-China relationship.” Pelosi visited Beijing days after the Chinese government issued its formal negotiating stance for Copenhagen, which asks major emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 40 percent by 2020. It’s hard to come up with a precise analogy for how difficult such a target would be. But certainly Americans could meet it easily by, uh, eliminating all household and commercial refrigeration.

Fortunately, striking a deal might ultimately cost much less than our entire national store of popsicles, ice cream, and frozen vegetables. Reuters interviews Gao Guangsheng, a top official in the National Coordination Committee for Climate Change, who acknowledges flexibility in the Chinese position. “I think Copenhagen may not be the final negotiation. It may set policy intentions so that we can keep negotiating,” he said.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who also went to China, put a finer point on current negotiations between the world’s two largest emitters: “Copenhagen will be defined by what the U.S. and China agree on in the next few weeks.”

Other nations admit little or no such sunlight between their formal and informal negotiating positions. India has said it will look to the developed world for definitive leadership before considering a rigorous climate policy. ClimateWire explores the task facing climate advocates in India tilting at this particular windmill. “The Indian government’s agenda will not change until Indians want it to change,” Malini Mehra, the founder of the Indian nonprofit Centre for Social Markets told U.N. Foundation audience in Washington, DC.

Climate glasnost?: Even intransigent national positions on climate change can change abruptly and dramatically, as they did after the 2008 U.S. election. They can also do so without warning.

Russia surprised the climate world by finally acknowledging the potentially catastrophic threats of manmade warming, Nature reports. The magnitude of this change might not be immediately apparent. Imagine that Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok.) jettisoned his longstanding ridicule of basic science and climate policy, and adopted a position as rigorous as that of Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House committee chairman and lead author of that chamber’s current climate bill. That’s what happened when the natural resources minister briefed the Russian Cabinet in April. Officials calculated that the economy already takes nearly a $2 billion hit every year, because of climate-related flooding, droughts, and storms.

This thaw in climate politics amounts to a major political shift in Russian attitudes. And its intended result is to prevent actual thaw that would amount to a climate shift in Russian latitudes. Edward Schuur of the University of Florida and colleagues write in Nature that warmer temperatures unleash soil carbon stored for many thousands of years in permafrost. Over the next few decades, carbon release from tundra could “overwhelm” the amount that plants use to grow, creating another accelerator for warming.

If it isn’t boring, it isn’t green“: Stern and Pelosi are not the U.S.’s only world travelers this week. Some 500 business leaders convened in the state of Denmark itself, calling on nations to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a target much lower than the 80 percent or so advocated by Obama and congressional allies.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a London audience that whitewashing the world’s roofs would reflect enough solar energy back into space to match emissions reductions from taking 11 million cars off the road. This is worth keeping in mind in coming weeks and months as Congress considers climate legislation (Legislators have the week off for Memorial Day). Little things, aggregated globally, mean a lot.

“Cap and trade” or no “cap and trade,” the White House and Capitol are unlikely to ever change how they address global warming. That’s because both buildings reflect about 240 watts per square meter of solar energy right back up into the sky. (It’s the same principle behind parental encouragement to wear light shirts on sunny summer days. White and light colors reflect energy; black and dark colors absorb it.)

That’s just one approach. These buildings’ whiteness comes from heavy, hydrocarbon paints, which given the size of the buildings probably store several tons of carbon. The buildings themselves keep many tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. The Capitol Rotunda alone, made of Triassic and Cretaceous period sandstone, keeps carbon locked away in rock.

Climate Post is, of course, kidding in pointing out these relatively paltry stores of carbon. But maybe as elected officials and policymakers consider paths forward, they’ll take a moment to meditate on or marvel at the bigger picture — the much bigger picture — of the history they are making (either way), the common U.S. history that led them to this episode, its role in the community of nations, and the community of nations’ current, consequential role in the history of the Earth’s climate and life. How “cool” is that?

The House at the Center of the World

NI logoLately, every week is the most consequential in the history of climate change. This week was no exception. A House of Representatives committee slogged through its potentially game-changing climate bill. The White House struck a deal with auto manufacturers and California to raise fuel efficiency — and consequently reduce carbon emissions. Uneven signals from China promise hope for some kind of agreement but foreshadow a tough road to achieve it. These are all simultaneous episodes in a larger story of transformation.

The House at the Center of the World: The House of Representatives now sits at the epicenter. Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee last Friday unveiled a full draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, cogently and quickly summarized by the Washington Post and Reuters. Democrats came to initial agreement on some of the thorniest issues, including how to allocate carbon credits to heavy polluters and other market participants, according to Greenwire. Among the major recipients of help, power companies will receive 35 percent of the allowances, natural gas distributors 9 percent, and energy-intensive, trade-sensitive industries 15 percent.

The committee is voting the bill Waxman co-sponsored with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to the full House at this very writing. Through these minute-by-minute details, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

Jargon Watch: Now and then, a word or phrase escapes the rarified journals and policy discussions where it was born, and greets an unsuspecting public. Such is the case with “cap and trade,” memorably deployed to mean “vague thing I’m supposed to understand but don’t” by the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd in a March column. ClimateWire has had fun with variations of it.

Whatever you call it, it’s the centerpiece of the Waxman-Markey bill.

In the last week or two, commentators and columnists have taken to op-ed pages with arguments against cap-and-trade, for it, and, well, mostly against it. (Policy op-eds frequently challenge the dominant trend.) Remember that a national climate policy, be it cap-‘n-trade, or a carbon tax, or Cap’n-America, is not an end in itself, but a way to help us help ourselves. Climate policy is designed to fix “the carbon problem” in our markets: Polluting is free but eventually could have seriously undesirable consequences.

What “cap-and-trade” means, and where it could carry us, hasn’t yet penetrated the chatter. E&E News reported this week that “[O]verall support for cap and trade trails far behind backing for increased investment in renewable energy, improved fuel efficiency for vehicles, implementation of a renewable electricity standard and even increased offshore drilling.” A cap and trade system is supposed to nudge the market toward increasing demand for new energy sources. Climate policy is a lever that increases investment in renewables, fuel efficiency, and may or may not affect the economics of oil drilling at home. The relationship between a national climate policy and these desirable goals isn’t “either-or” but “if-then.”

White House firing on all cylinders (now with greater efficiency): While the Energy and Commerce Committee worked over the Waxman-Markey bill, the administration announced the first major climate rule in U.S. history. Much to the administration’s delight, no one leaked news about new auto fuel efficiency standards before President Barack Obama’s announcement on Tuesday. That means official sources were willing to play along, as reporters captured rich chronologies (called “tick-tock” in the biz) of the secret negotiations, particularly the Los Angeles Times (LAT) and ClimateWire. The LAT pins down insider details, such as Ford’s 3 p.m. Sunday call to the White House saying the deal was off, and the subsequent impromptu cell-phone negotiations, with participants phoning from the bathroom at a Washington National’s game and a birthday party in New York. The new Corporate Auto Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules will establish a nationwide standard by 2016 that should reduce carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. cars and light-trucks by 30 percent.

Scaling the Great Wall that divides us: Secret negotiations were a motif this week. U.S. and Chinese negotiators began meeting last July trying to bridge their differences on emissions reductions, symbolically at the Great Wall. The Guardian broke news of the meetings on Monday, reporting that senior Bush administration advisers and several current Obama advisers met with Chinese officials. The back-channel talks led in March to an unsigned memorandum of understanding, which participants hope will embolden the world’s two largest national emitters to find a common ground in addressing the causes of climate change. The news comes at a time when the international climate community is gearing up for negotiations in December in Copenhagen.

Obama on Monday picked Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to China. A savvy selection, Huntsman is an up-and-comer in the Republican party, has served as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, and speaks fluent Mandarin. The Nicholas Institute, which operates The Climate Post, has conducted modeling studies of Utah’s policy options on climate change, under Huntsman’s administration. Obama has indicated he expects climate change to hold a prominent spot in Huntsman’s portfolio.

Talks between developed and developing nations will continue to shape international climate politics (witness the Indo-Asian News Service’s interest in an amendment to a bill moving through a House committee). The secret talks reported by the Guardian are only one item of interest in a complicated U.S.-Chinese relationship. Chinese officials confirmed for the Alliance France Presse earlier today their negotiating position for the end-of-the-year Copenhagen talks:  China will ask that industrialized nations commit to emissions targets 40 percent below the amount they emitted in 1990 by 2020. The European Union has resigned itself to 20 percent reductions, and the House climate bill would reduce pollution 20 percent below 2005 levels.

Any unified global action must consider and guide international trade. The Washington Post showed just how complicated these relationships can be, in a front-page story Monday about the rise of China as a car-maker. Chinese companies have grown quickly, which means that their firms lack the technical expertise that can only emerge with time. “What they still lack is… being able to design new vehicles from scratch and get them to a manufacturing line,” Kelly Sims Gallagher of Harvard’s Kennedy School told the Post. A probable result: Chinese firms will try and buy ailing U.S. car companies — and their valuable human capital. Don’t miss Business Week‘s in-depth package on greening China.

Reporting? We don’t need no stinkin’ reporting!: Fortune magazine recently held its second Brainstorm Green conference, a star-studded event that brought together luminaries from the politics and business worlds. But editors undermined their expertise in climate issues — in business, politics, policy, and science — by publishing an article lacking the rigor and seriousness characteristic to the publication.

“What if global warming fears are overblown?” — the headline — is an important question to ask. Climate fears might be overblown. They might be “underblown.” But the risk of climate change — the consequences of catastrophic change times its probability — is serious enough to prompt global and quick action, a point the article fails to make. Instead, a financial writer, Jon Birger, asks “softball” questions of a University of Alabama, Huntsville, scientist, whose skepticism about the potential for severe global warming is out of step with the work of scientists who have re-examined his work in peer-reviewed journals (here, for example). Climate science is a vast body of physical, evidence, assembled by thousands of people, worldwide, over several decades. Putting eight questions to a scientist whose ideas were challenged professionally at least four years ago fails to communicate the preponderance of evidence that is driving the world to reduce the (rising) climate risk.

Welcome to The Climate Post

NI logoEveryone suffers from time-poverty, these days. Many areas of expertise have become deeply entwined with other disciplines and professions, even as we all have less time to explore them. That’s particularly true in climate change, where politics, business, Earth and life sciences, policy, and culture are all interdependent – yet no one can keep up on everything.

People close to energy-and-climate work in the U.S. Congress might not have time to read about new businesses that are bringing clean technologies to market, or a controversial article in a science journal, or events in far-flung corners of the world. People working on clean-tech start-ups might not have time to keep track of Congress. Readers interested in but not knowledgeable about energy-and-climate issues might get to just one or two articles a week on a subject outside their immediate spheres. The Web offers us boundless information, but limited context.

That’s why the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University is pleased to introduce The Climate Post, a weekly (for starters) narrative overview of news, trends, and events that shape the evolving climate mosaic. The Institute is an independent center charged with identifying and helping remove “sticking points” to progress in addressing our many environmental challenges.

The limits of media are a sticking point to dealing with climate change. Even before the wheels came off the traditional media, on average, climate coverage has been lacking in centralization and comprehensiveness. The Climate Post is our drop in the bucket, a way to make sense of what’s reported and how, what isn’t reported, and how the vast sweep of politics, policy, science, business, and culture all vie for our attention on the “story of the century.” We’re here to try and blend many stories into a single weekly narrative – delivered to you each Thursday afternoon at 3 p.m..

The Climate Post
Thursday, May 14, 2009

This week’s climate headlines are reminiscent of an old joke that touted “newspaper headlines the day after nuclear war.”

The New York Times: “Nuclear War, Third World Hit Hardest.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Nuclear War, Effect on Markets Uncertain.”

The Boston Globe: “Tip O’Neill Safe After Nuclear Blast.”

USA Today: “We’re Dead! Full AFC-NFC Box Scores, p. 11.”

You can tell it’s an old joke because concern about “newspapers” and “nuclear war” is very 20th century. Yet when you track this week’s headlines as climate legislation makes its way through the U.S. House, it’s clear not much has changed.

This morning’s Times and yesterday’s Washington Post headlines about the situation emphasize a near-deal among previously sparring Democrats. The Journal eyes new potential breaks for the auto industry and utilities in the bill. The Globe stays local, and writes that a national plan would supplant Massachusetts’ participation in a Northeast climate program.

The USA Today ran an Associated Press story on its Web site, and last week printed an article with the headline, “Celebs use star power to spotlight pet causes; Environmental issues rate high on activist actors’ list.” (The paper reports that Prince Charles, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams and Pele teamed for a MySpace.com video about rainforests.)

Here’s our snapshot, this week: Waxman and his co-sponsor, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), are pressing the House Energy and Commerce Committee to pass their American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The bill would set a nationwide “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions – a limit – that would decline over time, as well as set a Renewable Electricity Standard. After two weeks of hearings in April and intense back-door negotiations with Committee members and their constituents back home, signs of a deal have begun to leak out. We should see a revised version of the bill, called the Manager’s Amendment, within the next few days.

Meanwhile, down Pennsylvania Avenue, the administration in recent weeks has issued new guidelines for biofuels (enflaming parts of industry), set in motion potential EPA regulations of carbon emissions from tailpipes, and backed a Bush administration decision on the inadequacy of the Endangered Species Act to address climate change indirectly, through the declining habitat for polar bears. [See this for biofuels and this for polar bears.]

These headlines have dominated in the Washington environmental world – but just as Americans are not the only people fighting information overload and time-poverty, Washington is not the only capital struggling with climate issues this week:
Citing the recession, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off plans to create a national market for industrial firms seeking to buy or sell credits to emit greenhouse gases. His government’s proposal had failed to garner support among environmentalists, who saw the targets as too thin, and industry, which hopes for more concessions.

This conversation plays out against a background of increasing concern about the effects of climate change already being witnessed down-under. The Economist reported this week that the volume of water reaching the Murray River in South Australia is lower than any other time in 117 years. The article is bluntly titled, “In need of a miracle.”

Local capitals are getting in on the action, too. Voters in British Columbia went to the polls and re-elected the Liberal party, giving a vote of confidence in the province’s carbon tax – the first law of its kind in North America. In the U.S., Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, has supported measures that would encourage the development of clean technology. Observers partially credit (or blame) her influence and new laws on Mid-Michigan Energy’s recent scuttling of a coal-fired power plant in Midland. But job-starved regions of the state welcome the work that would come from plant construction – and several remain in the pipeline. An energy company in Washington state pulled plans for a $1.5 billion coal-fired power plant, because it has no way of capturing the emissions.

A paper local to former President George W. Bush’s ranch, the Waco Tribune-Herald, editorialized today, “Dismiss talk of global warming and environmentalism if you must. But these times are changing fast and, along with them, the very way we heat and cool our homes and businesses.” That’s just one take in a state simultaneously encouraging its potential for solar energy while elected representatives to Washington fight the Waxman-Markey bill. When the Bushes visit family in Maine, they’ll encounter a new law in Kennebunkport that prevents cars and trucks from idling at banks, fast food restaurants, and at the beach (The Secret Service probably has pull).

Legislation and rules, scientific predictions and industry product lines are shaping the international response to global warming on a daily basis. We’ll bring you highlights weekly. A thousand words now and then can provide a pretty good picture. See you next week.