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 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.