Surprise Deal Emerges at United Nations Climate Talks

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In a surprise turnaround, the United Nations climate talks managed to produce a new deal to eventually curb global emissions moving forward. In a press release announcing the agreement, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) called it a “breakthrough.”

The new agreement marks a break from the Kyoto Protocol, which divided the world into two categories—the developed and the developing world. Instead, said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, the new agreement reflects “today’s mutually interdependent world,” and moves toward an agreement that partners all countries in combating climate change.

The new agreement—dubbed the “Durban Platform“—created a group with an unwieldy name, the Ad Hoc Working Group on a Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which has the mandate to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.” In essence, it is an agreement to finalize an accord no later than 2015, which would go into effect in 2020.

The agreement would also extend the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire at the end of 2012, for an additional five years, allowing the system’s carbon trading to continue. This won’t have much impact on carbon markets or renewable investment in the next few years, analysts told Reuters, but could have an effect over the longer term.

How the Deal Was Done

To forge the deal at the thirteenth hour, the talks were extended nearly two days.

The push for the new agreement reportedly came from developing nations and those likely to be most affected by climate change, which put pressure on the European Union to work for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

The bloc of emerging countries known as BASIC—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—was divided, with India the strongest holdout against binding emissions cuts for these countries—at least until richer countries met the targets they’d already committed to.

India was persuaded by an addition in the Durban text of an option of an “outcome with legal force”—although the difference in meaning between that and a protocol or “legal instrument” is not yet clear. The United States’ Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, said overall it is “pretty clear that we’re talking about something probably in the nature of a protocol.”

Just after the talks wrapped up, Canada pulled out of Kyoto Protocol, saying it won’t meet the goals it had agreed to for cutting its emissions, bringing condemnation at home and abroad. Nonetheless, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said Canada still has a “legal obligation” to cut its emissions.

Landmark or Disaster?

Opinions were divided over the new pact’s significance.

Some called it a “landmark deal,” although many seem to think it is unlikely to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the line the U.N. had drawn for “dangerous climate change.”

A Nature editorial called the outcome “an unqualified disaster” for the climate, and argued politicians can no longer talk “with a straight face” of meeting the 2-degrees-Celsius goal. With India’s agriculture under major threat from further warming, the country’s reluctance to sign a binding climate treaty was “suicidal,” argued Gwynne Dyer.

Persian Gulf Tensions

Meanwhile another deal was being hashed out, among the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They agreed to raise officially allowed production to 30 million barrels a day—but since production is already at that level, the agreement will likely have little effect on oil prices. The compromise came out in Saudi Arabia’s favor, since the country defied other OPEC members earlier this year and unilaterally raised its own production.

Oil markets are “cooling” as the Eurozone crisis has slowed global growth, said the International Energy Agency; nonetheless, the agency warned oil prices are high enough to threaten growth.

Tensions between Iran and the West continued, with some saying a covert war has already begun. An escalation would likely drive oil prices much higher, and the U.S. and European Union are reportedly trying to find ways to apply pressure to Iran that would neither raise oil prices nor hand Iran windfall profits.

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.

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Pleas, Hard Lines, and Accusations of Bad Faith Negotiations at Climate Talks

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In Durban, South Africa, the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations opened with a plea from South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, for countries to look beyond national interests. So far, however, the talks have been marked by many of the same divisions that plagued earlier meets.

A coalition of environmental groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists—accused the U.S. of negotiating in bad faith. At the conference, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela stalled on decisions about a Green Climate Fund to pay for clean energy and climate change adaptation in poorer countries.

In response, the European Union (EU) urged a conclusion on the fund, and took the hardest stance it ever has in such negotiations, insisting on stiff conditions for China and developing countries and demanding a road map for moving forward.

Meanwhile, Canada’s environment minister called the country’s decision to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol “one of the biggest blunders” an earlier administration made since they had no intention of meeting the pledge. This led a group of African leaders to plead Canada to reconsider.

Climategate 2.0

A week before the climate talks began, a new collection of 5,000 e-mails from climate researchers surfaced, apparently part of the same set obtained and then leaked in 2009 in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Despite widespread accusations of bias and manipulation of data, the researchers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

But the new release of the second batch of e-mails led U.S. Rep. Ed Markey to state: “This is clearly an attempt to sabotage the international climate talks for a second time.” Markey called for more intense investigation into how the e-mails were hacked. While U.K. police investigated the apparent crime before, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the police spent little on this effort.

To try and get clues of who may have been responsible, the Guardian reached out to readers to help troll through the files and uncovered an encrypted file apparently created by the hacker.

Emissions Warning

The latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the World Meteorological Organization recorded an unusually large increase in the CO2 level in the air in 2010—a jump of 2.3 parts per million over the year, compared with the average over the preceding decade of 2.0 parts per million each year.

If this trend continued for the rest of the century, the world would warm some 6 degrees Celsius, warned Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

However, this forecast is at odds with other warnings the IEA has made, argued Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet—in particular, Birol’s warning that the world has reached the peak of conventional crude oil production, and that high oil prices are hampering economic growth.

Threat of “Oil Armageddon”

Oil-importing countries continued to feel the bite of high oil prices; nonetheless, this year renewable energy spending passed a milestone, topping investment for fossil power plants.

Oil prices may spike again, many analysts warned, after France urged many countries to halt Iranian oil imports, and the U.S., Britain and Canada teamed up to apply new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

However, the EU, poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest oil importer, can’t afford to refuse Iranian oil, the Wall Street Journal argued. Likewise, the U.S. had been considering sanctions, CNN reported, but hesitated because of the toll an oil price spike would likely have on the global economy. With relations between Iran and the West quickly worsening, Reuters reports oil consuming nations, hedge funds and refineries are preparing for an “oil armageddon.”

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.

Throngs Enter Copenhagen’s Climate Gates

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: President Barack Obama last week shifted the date he will visit the Copenhagen climate talks from Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, the last and most consequential day. Three days into the 15th U.N.-sponsored Conference of Parties, this otherwise mundane fact carries the most symbolism. Whatever happens, whatever has already been settled or is left to do, the baseline expectation is that – whatever it is – the result is unlikely to be an embarrassment to the President of the United States.

The Thanksgiving holiday and then, more locally, the flu have kept this observer reluctantly quiet during two of the most consequential weeks in “climate history,” which have seen the unauthorized release of private e-mails from climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s formal declaration of heat-trapping gases as pollutants.

Copenhagen Briefing, in Brief: COP talks tend to generate fleeting controversy and misunderstanding as negotiators engage each other. This 15th meeting is no exception. London’s Guardian reported a day after the opening ceremonies of the existence of a secret “Danish text” agreement, which would marginalize the United Nations and impose unacceptable requirements on poor nations most vulnerable to change. This is likely a souped-up version of what’s been occurring all year—punching up whatever news is out there, because there’s so little. As ExxonMobil’s Brian Flannery told Grist in the Danish capital, “I’m trying hard to understand what is happening, as I think everyone is… Because it’s very hard to know what is actually happening here.” This morning, Tuvalu walked out of the negotiations in protest over the perceived weakness of COP-15’s goals. Talks resumed in the afternoon.

What’s certain are the main issues that nations are sparring over: emissions goals and timelines; forestry; technology transfer; and adaptation. Distance among parties on emissions drove the talks toward a political agreement, rather than a treaty, weeks before talks began. That said, an upbeat news boomlet came in late November and December when the U.S. announced that it would propose 17 percent emissions reductions (below 2005 levels) in 2020 and China said it would reduced its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent in that time. Forestry may be the most promising area, even if recent studies have questioned the amount of global warming attributable to deforestation. This area of policy has advanced rapidly in the last decade, and Nicholas Institute colleagues are thought-leaders in the field. The Nicholas Institute and Nicholas School are sending a delegation of 18 people to Copenhagen. They will record their daily thoughts and observations at a new blog, Good COP/Bad COP: Visit early and often.

“Technology transfer” is a grab-bag of issues that includes everything from intellectual property protections for U.S. inventors to trade. Nations are also pairing off to help ease trade issues. The U.S. and India secured clean-tech partnerships during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit [pdf]. China and the Obama administration continue talks on these matters.

“Endangerment Is My Middle Name”: Scientists have understood that carbon dioxide traps heat since 1859. (The 150th anniversary of John Tyndall’s famous experiment was this year.) Carbon dioxide has legally been a pollutant in the U.S. since Monday, an event Tyndall couldn’t have imagined. That’s when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the agency’s final “endangerment finding,” a legal hurdle that, now overcome, enables the U.S. to regulate greenhouse gases from large cars, factories, and utilities. Colleagues’ policy study [full pdf] earlier this year found that only a small percentage of U.S. firms might be regulated under new programs.

This afternoon, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman released a new framework for the climate change legislation they expect to introduce in coming weeks. The four-page document avoids no major issue that senators will have to wrangle if they are to pass legislation next year.

What We Know. What to Do?: If ever a topical item recommended reading beyond one’s regular news and dispassionate consideration it is the release of ten years worth of University of East Anglia climate scientists’ e-mails. In mid-November an unknown hacker or hackers uploaded more than 1,000 e-mails on to a public server in Russia. A couple of dozen e-mails raise integrity questions about scientists’ discussion of a peer-reviewed journal and the public release of their data. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see the release of such a wide latent interest in paleodendrology and a great opportunity for many people to update themselves on the state of climate science.

Two of the most helpful pieces about the e-mails–quickly dubbed “climategate” by whatever computer algorithm instantaneously adds “-gate” to the end of key words in American public controversies—are Columbia University geochemist Peter Kelemen’s Popular Mechanics take and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s report.

Last night, CNN’s Larry King hosted two garden-variety conservative men and two garden-variety liberal women simulating an argument on various issues, including the UEA e-mails. The guests groped for intelligible things to say before moving on to analysis of Sarah Palin’s book tour. This segment was one of many low-points in the UEA saga, along with CNN’s titling of a new topical series, “Climate Change: Trick or Truth.”

Climate change is neither trick nor truth.  It is the sum of observed changes in the Earth system, analysis of further risks, understanding of past climate behavior, and questions of ongoing research. The volume of scientific material is vast, following independent lines of evidence; the leading solutions are expensive or complicated or both; the pace and scale of predicted effects are uncertain, both physically and economically; the moral questions of international and intergenerational equity are searing. Even right now, observed changes can trip up those living through it. The reality of human-induced climate change is a different matter than the possible lapses in scientific integrity within the e-mail conversations. The University of East Anglia has launched an investigation on that matter.

Earth system science, with neuroscience and genomics, is the most exciting, influential, and complicated endeavor researchers are working on these days. And yet in a way it’s the easiest part of the larger climate change debate to tackle: What to do is proving more difficult than discovery. The robustness of scientific understanding of manmade climate change appears to have prevented policymakers from getting distracted by the procedural and integrity questions raised within the scientific community by the UEA e-mails. Here’s one quick take on “what we know”

Certain atmospheric gases, notably carbon dioxide, absorb heat, the way an antenna absorbs radio waves or eyes absorb white light. Humans are transforming underground carbon minerals, fuels, into atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing its volume by about a third in 150 years. More gas traps more energy. More energy raises global temperatures. Higher temperatures melt ice, which raises sea levels and lowers the Earth’s reflectivity (consequently admitting more energy). As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, they become more acidic, creating a threat to many living things and ecosystems. Climate historian Spencer Weart told the New York Times: “The physics of the greenhouse effect is so basic that instead of asking whether it would happen, it makes more sense to ask what on earth could make it not happen. So far, nobody has been able to come up with anything plausible in that line.”

Scientists predict climate impacts and attribute observed changes to human actions with varying levels of confidence. The tree ring studies at the core of the UEA e-mail debate have already been picked over for a decade and are not considered front-and-center evidence for warming. The temperature studies are quite important; that’s why the raw data has been studied at two other research centers, too, with compatible results. Leading clmatologists have recommended, some forcefully, that global carbon emissions should peak in 2015.

How we respond to this information is still, and is likely to always be, a work in progress. As Obama said today at the Nobel ceremony, “There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement — all of which will fuel more conflict for decades.”

Short-term forecast: Things will continue to heat up in wintry Copenhagen this week – and everywhere else, too.

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.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Fray


Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed confidence that international negotiators can resolve impediments to a global climate agreement, and that Copenhagen will be a productive step in that process. Ban visited Washington, DC, where he and climate adviser Janos Pasztor spoke with lawmakers about the international community’s expectations for U.S. leadership on global climate policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that the Copenhagen COP-15 talks can be a useful “stepping stone toward full legal agreement.”


President Barack Obama may visit Copenhagen in December if he can help clinch a deal, although his track record on visiting Copenhagen to clinch deals has a 100 percent fail rate (with a sample of one). A quiet-ish week for climate on Capitol Hill pushed news out to the states, where politicians and scientists are fighting what for a while it seemed like were yesterday’s battles.

Let’s Call a Spade a Rake: Political speech sometimes has a duplicitous relationship to the record of observations and understanding that makes up what we know on any given day about “physical reality.” Few things highlight this duality quite like global warming, and no prominent columnist spends more energy prying climate rhetoric and understanding farther apart than Newsweek and Washington Post columnist George Will.

Will’s most recent column about climate change, “Everyone Out of the Water!”, makes a useful touchstone for a week marked by a widening gap between political rhetoric and scientific observation. Space limitations limit analysis of Will’s column to two points, a falsehood and a self-deflating contradiction.

Falsehood: Will dubs as “cooling” conditions that have conspired to make 10 of the hottest years on record all occur between 1997 and 2008, despite flat temperature readings. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. If Newsweek editors follow the lead of their Washington Post colleagues, the magazine will issue no correction, and in fact, allow him to repeat this in a later column. In April, Washington Post reporters went to the possibly unprecedented length of correcting him in a news article.

Self-Deflating Contradiction: Will questions whether “computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming.” This is a fine thing to question. In fact, the entire reason we have computer models is to question them. What they do, sometimes, is give us a sense of probabilities, and among them, a sense of the probability for catastrophic, non-catastrophic, and bearable global warming. Say that you aren’t interested in climate-model projections at all. Say you are interested in U.S. population growth. You might construct a scenario based on what we know of U.S. population growth and conditions for the next few decades. In fact, later in his column, Will writes of emissions targets in the recent House climate bill, “The last time this nation had that small an amount [of emissions] was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050.” Interesting: Why should Will ask us to dismiss any value of climate modeling, and then build his argument for ignorance and inaction based on population modeling? Climate Post bets George Will would never say to a successful hedge fund, Well, you didn’t really make all of that money because you were just using computer models to project probabilities of market behavior and bet accordingly.

Will is only the most prominently published politico to distort scientific habits of mind and the results of vetted observation. In Illinois, five of seven Republican gubernatorial candidates have taken positions against documentation and observation. Utah’s governor and state legislators this week received a “stinging rebuke” from Brigham Young University scientists for privileging “fringe positions.” In this kind of environment, credit goes to the U.S. Senate House Republicans who are pushing back at the Interior Department’s recent move to set up a climate operation: Their letter appears to keep the conversation focused on “What to do” rather than “What’s going on.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who signed the letter, is helping address a hole in science-and-technology research by co-sponsoring a bill that would set up awards for developers of technologies to gobble up airborne carbon dioxide economically and dispose of it.

What’s Going on: Politics and scientific data have typically driven the climate conversation in the U.S. That’s changing, as, across the country, professionals are realizing that warming might challenge or change standard operating procedures. Western water managers face “a pretty daunting and disconcerting reality that we’re beginning to get our heads around,” according to a Nevada official quoted in Climate Wire. The Army Corps of Engineers sees at least some benefit to projections of potential climate change so that “make stupid large investments that are difficult or impossible to undo.” Observational data bear out their concern. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced this week for the last decade record-high temperatures have occurred twice as frequently as record-low ones.

Welcome to Our Growing Indian Audience:
Nothing could be less surprising than, even 14 years after a international scientific collaboration detected a “discernible human influence” on global warming, a writer as influential as George Will being allowed by editors to put forth demonstrable falsehoods about the topic. This criticism is not leveled on policy issues. Deciding to do nothing about warming is one reaction to the preponderance of evidence demonstrating the risks of change. Deciding to reduce U.S. emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–as developing nations argue we should–is another take. The latter route might lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression. The former might also lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression–just not in our lifetimes. Or it might not. That’s the charm of climate change: You really have to decide how much you want to jeopardize the future based on scientifically generated risk data. George Will might argue something like the former, if he would like. He might argue something like the latter, if he would like. But whatever he argues, he might help everyone by looking more deeply at his characterization of climate risk. There’s a big difference between “catastrophic global climate change” and “the risk of catastrophic global climate change.” (Climate Post called Will’s office earlier this year, proposing a year-long team climate reporting project, but never received a response.) After all, what difference can a few degrees make?

[Late addition: Will’s irresponsible columns are a greater tragedy when placed against the sad backdrop of U.S. media dematerialization. Newsweek announced a new round of layoffs this week.]

After a month spent talking in India in part about all the new, interesting, and productive climaterelated developments occurring in the U.S, it’s a shame to have to spend time pushing back against mean-spirited factual incorrectness. To boot, our national conversation is no longer a national conversation. It’s “global” warming, not “America” warming. Many of the people who may live with the economic, social, political, and physical consequences of change are listening, looking to the U.S. for leadership, and not always finding it.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Fist Things Fist: If this section heading doesn’t look quite right it’s because there are a few r’s missing. That was true this week of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a panel of Democrats whose Republican sparring partners boycotted work on the climate bill co-sponsored by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The Republican senators criticized the majority for moving ahead without an EPA analysis of the bill, which is similar to one that the House approved in June. The bill passed out of the committee this morning by a vote of 11-1, with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voting against it, and all the R’s abstaining.

Committee drama set the stage for Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to announce yesterday that they are pursuing parallel negotiations on a climate bill, and are in discussion with the administration, Senate colleagues, and outside interests, including the newly minted American Businesses for Clean Energy.

Expectations for the Copenhagen climate talks continue to drop so low that the conference might end up being declared a success solely on the basis of having enough folding chairs and scratch paper for attendees. Climate envoy Todd Stern told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that in Copenhagen the U.S. hopes to lay groundwork for agreements on contentious issues in the near future.

About Our Recent, Unexcused Absences…: What many Indians lack in understanding “global warming,” they make up for in knowledge that their climate is changing. That’s a central takeaway from Climate Post‘s recent three-week voyage through India. It’s also the central problem in writing about climate change: Scientists commonly define “climate” as a statistical average of weather events, somewhere, over a long period of time. So personal observations, such as, the rainy season isn’t so rainy lately, are of limited scientific value. We can note that extreme events–flooding, drought, erratic weather, coastal erosion, the rest–resemble predictions, if they do. But there’s “no man behind the curtain” of climate change.

These on-the-ground observations may be of limited scientific value. But what makes them tangible is the way that en masse they begin to shape the very non-scientific public awareness and politics. Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay, a Times of India special correspondent, told me that editors have focused attention on climate change prompted not by politics, as is frequently the case in the U.S., but with declining agricultural productivity. The eastern Indian state of Odisha (called Orissa until 2 weeks ago) has many concerns. If there is an environmental problem happening anywhere in India, or the world, it can also be found in Odisha. And climate risks in this region are halting. Last week marked the 10th anniversary of a supercyclone that killed 10,000 people and dislocated more than 1.5 million there. Poorer areas never recovered and fears linger. “They shouldn’t call [storms] ‘low-pressure systems,'” said Prafulla Kumar Dhal, who works for a local social welfare agency called BISWA. “They should call them ‘normal-pressure systems.'”

The U.S. climate debate often feels hollow (mostly–anyone remember Katrina?) because it is largely driven by political concerns and scientific data, not people experiencing the meteorological weirdness that, if nothing else, Occam’s Razor suggests may be partly influenced by climate change. It’s a common assertion in the climate community that poor and vulnerable nations will experience the severest dislocations. It’s a less common assertion that poor and vulnerable nations are already beginning to see strain, are aware of it, and are unhappy. In some ways I learned more about it my first two days in India than in the previous 10 years I’ve spent writing out it.

Beyond the Foreign Section: The Indian trip was organized by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Information Programs, though I traveled as a private citizen unencumbered by any official messages, tasks, or requests. Mostly, I was asked to go over and meet with Indian journalists so that we can compare notes about what works and doesn’t in climate coverage, and find ways to work together. The trip culminated in a New Delhi journalism conference, organized by the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, about bridging the gaps between climate change reporting in the North and South.

Discussions frequently turned to how difficult it is for Indians to see anything beyond Washington, and for Americans to see anything beyond Delhi. Some Indians I met tend to see America as monolithic or a cartoon. President Obama is seen by some as no different from President Bush on climate policy, even if he has the Senate to fault. Many Americans who think about it see India only as the first part of the phrase “India and China,” without recognizing the complexities, that 99 percent of Indians live below the U.S. poverty line or that there are 100 million-200 million more Indians without electricity than there are Americans in total. There is much work to do bringing Indians and Americans together electronically.

Now Appearing on the International Stage: India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, is interesting to watch. He must balance the demands of his government, which is reluctant to amend its incalcitrant position in the climate negotiations, and his interlocutors in the West, who are reluctant to amend their incalcitrant positions in the climate negotiations. This week he is encouraging Indians to see climate change as a leadership opportunity–and a responsibility to the future, and to internalize its meaning rather than play victim to a problem of the West’s creation.

The Obama administration appears poised to make more progress in its bilateral relationship with India than with any other nation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Washington this month and enjoy President Obama’s first state dinner. Trade and geopolitics are bringing the two nations together, cautiously.

Statistical Threats Leave No Fingerprints: India may be more vulnerable to large-scale climate change than any other nation. Seventy percent of its rainfall comes during monsoon season. Unusual variability in the monsoon has led to drought and flooding. Melting Himalayan glaciers threaten fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions. The Bay of Bengal is eroding a string of Odisha villages I visited. BISWA’s Prafulla Kumar Dhal spoke of an important temple, the adjacent wells to which had dried up. “The gods know that the climate is changing,” he said, seemingly incredulous. Maybe so, maybe not. Some weird stuff is happening in India. The question, what if anything will we do about it, remains unanswered–in Washington, New Delhi, Copenhagen, and elsewhere.

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.

The Whole World Is Talking

NI logoFirst Things First: The journal Nature has published a study that attempts to find numerical “planetary boundaries” for global change, an effort that the authors believe will help policymakers better understand humanity’s impact on the planet and its life. A team of Earth scientists, led by the Stockholm Resilience Center, has identified and defined nine natural systems, and sifting through mountains of data and studies, assigned tentative thresholds beyond which environmental stress might cause them to fail. We have already tripped three such systems–climate change, extinction rate, and the nitrogen cycle, they contend. The study is likely to infuriate scientists who think assigning single numbers to such complex systems is absurd; confuse nonprofessionals trying to parse the value of boundaries so laden with caveats and lacunae in knowledge; and succeed in focusing the global conversation on the best available metrics for the speed at which civilization is swallowing the Earth.

NY Midtown Traffic Linked to Climate Change: The ultimate audience for whom the Nature study was conducted met in New York City two days before its publication. President Barack Obama addressed Tuesday’s day-long U.N. climate change summit. He noted the urgency of the issue and his administration’s role in turning around the U.S.’s policy. He outlined investment in renewable electricity and fuel economy and proposed a global phase-out of oil subsidies. But he couldn’t give the audience what it wanted: a U.S. climate policy to back up the president’s international goals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the event, a political pick-me-up on what has otherwise been a muddy road to the December COP-15 talks in Copenhagen. The parade of world leaders past the podium set off the inevitable question of who is leading the global climate debate. Noble speeches and goals were largely deflated by vague language. Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter would cut down by a “notable” amount, without assigning a numerical target. India sent its environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who talked up domestic legislation likely to appear in November that could set voluntary targets for fuel efficiency in 2011, building codes in 2012, and carbon capture and storage by 2020. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog asks, Has China suddenly become the “good guy” on climate?

All the activity may indicate that a new kind of global deal is emerging, in which individual nations design their own goals and programs, in what adds up to a more federalized system. More theoretically, if global emissions were limited to an amount thought to keep the Earth below 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, and the access to these emissions were assigned out based on population, the U.S. would run out in six years and have to stop polluting.

A new series in ClimateWire will provide an in-depth look at development and climate issues inside China. The first piece cites U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern’s observation that parts of China resemble the developed world, even if most of the country is developing. Writer Lisa Friedman nails a central frustration with the status quo international climate regime: “Stern’s problem is that the current global climate change regime doesn’t allow for this kind of nuance.”

List of Lists to Grow: The Stockholm Resilience Institute is only the most rigorous attempt to list issues as a way for people to understand them better. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Browne turns in a New York Times op-ed enumerating five global issues that need attention over the next six months–the most consequential for global cooperation since 1945. Climate change tops the list. Sheila Olmstead and Robert Stavins, of Yale and Harvard respectively, identify three essential pillars of an international agreement: inclusion of key rich and poor nations; allowing enough time for emissions reductions; Tribune Newspapers points out nine potential stumbling blocks to a global treaty. Half of the top 10 most environmentally responsible companies are in information technology, according to a Newsweek study of the green 500.

Capitol Ideas: Conflict in the Senate made Washington a climate center this week, even as the war in Afghanistan distracted people from kicking back and reading Sen. Max Baucus’ centrist health-care legislation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Energy Committee, threatened to introduce legislation that would delay enactment of the EPA’s new greenhouse gas regulations emissions, as they would affect stationary sources, such as power plants or manufacturing facilities. Though the situation is now resolved, it occupied senators on both sides of the aisle for several days.

Activity on climate activity proceeds in the Environment and Public Works Committee, where Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), committee chairwoman, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will introduce a bill next week. It is based on the legislation that passed the House of Representatives in June. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is expected to introduce a stripped-down, 33-page “cap-and-refund” bill that would sell emissions credits at auction to energy companies. Seventy-five percent of the funds would return to consumers. The balance would go toward investment in new energy technology and other climate-related matters.

No (Science) News Is Good News: Upbeat climate-related stories abound, as venture capitalists plow funds into shiny and clean energy technologies and city managers find better ways of living. It is difficult to travel long in this space without acknowledging that dangerous climate change would be a bummer. Precise satellite measurements show that ice melt on Greenland and in Antarctica is accelerating. The Western U.S. may have a hard time planning for change, when officials don’t recognize scientific observations. Overall, the science can be characterized as, if not worrisome, then hard.

Naming Names: One upside to a failure at Copenhagen has gone unremarked upon, until the following conversation with Mrs. Climate Post occurred en route to work earlier this week:

MCP: “So wait… if they strike a deal in Copenhagen, then we’ll have to call it the Copenhagen Protocol, like the Kyoto Protocol?”
CP: “That’s pretty much the idea, yeah.”
MCP: “It’s kind of a mouthful.”
CP: “Next year is Mexico City.”
MCP: “Still a lot of syllables.”
CP: Maybe they can go back to Milan. The Milan Protocol.”
MCP: “That’s nice. I like that.”
CP: “Or Perm…”

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.

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.