What Is the True Social Cost of Carbon?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.

Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.

Climate Change in the Stone Age

Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.

In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption  could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.

PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”

Country-Sized Emissions

Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.

It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Deep-Sea Methane, Wind that Could Power World?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to spend more than $5 million researching the potential to produce natural gas from deep-sea methane hydrates—ice-like formations that contain natural gas and are stable at depths of more than 300 feet. The Energy Department calls them “the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource”—some estimate they are twice as abundant as all remaining natural gas and petroleum reserves. According to William Dillon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “The worldwide amounts of carbon bound in gas hydrates is conservatively estimated to total twice the amount of carbon to be found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.” This is the same methane hydrate that could be released into the atmosphere if Antarctica’s ice sheets thin as a result of climate change.

Another abundant resource sharing headlines is wind: there may be enough wind on Earth to meet global power demands (subscription), at least technically, according to a new report. Wind power to such a degree would require covering much of the Earth’s surface and oceans with turbines. Though wind power currently supplies about 4.1 percent of U.S. electric power, the study concludes that we could produce about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.

Challenges of Climate Change

In the U.S., drought and rising temperatures are posing challenges for power plants. The Washington Post details the burdens these factors are placing on coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power generators—including the Hoover Dam, where low water levels make meeting demand difficult. The news has Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush calling for a probe into whether climate change could threaten the nation’s electricity supply. In their letter, the two cite several cases in which power plants were forced to cease operation or cut back output when nearby water sources became too warm to cool the plants.

Despite suffering the worst drought in 50 years, farmers will collect far more corn crop than previously predicted. Still, at 10.727 billion barrels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will remain at $7 per bushel. The corn yield is still projected to be the worst since 1995.

While climate conditions are impacting farmers, more and more big businesses are seeing the potential impact to their operations. A new report indicates approximately 81 percent of the largest global companies that report sustainability strategies and greenhouse gas emissions include disruptions from climate change among corporate risk disclosures. Thirty-seven percent of those companies consider droughts, fires and the like a serious threat.

Arctic Drilling Sees More Delays

Drifting ice halted Shell’s efforts to drill its first well in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea just one day into the already-delayed project. The arrival of the ice is the latest in a series of regulatory and equipment setbacks for the company, which has already spent about $4 billion on the effort. Though the federal government estimates the Alaska Arctic offshore region contains close to 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, sea ice and harsh conditions make for a short drilling season. The moving ice may bring them closer to the Sept. 24 close of the drilling season—stated in the terms of their permit—with little progress toward their goal. “Depending on conditions, it could be a few or, potentially, several days before it’s safe enough to resume drilling,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

Shell has petitioned for an extension of the season because its projections had shown the arrival of ice much later in the season. The area’s unforgiving conditions have led some doubt how safely these efforts could be carried out—despite extra efforts to beef up the same equipment that failed in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Paul F. Zukunft, who served as the federal coordinator on the 2010 BP spill, said, “I would never be confident [we could handle a major spill]. You’ll never get all the oil.”

In Louisiana, that’s been the case. Nearly two years after the BP spill Hurricane Isaac has churned up tar balls positively identified as originating from the 2010 event. BP has proposed a “deep clean” of these beaches—sifting as deep as 4 feet—to remove contaminants before sand deposited by new storms covers over the tarballs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are looking at other methods—more specifically, blooms of bacterial biomass and whether they could consume oil and gas from the BP spill trapped about a half-mile below the water’s surface. Tests so far say yes—showing these microbes have consumed about 200,000 tons of this oil.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.