Uptick in Climate Denialism Halts Glacier Retreat and Lowers Sea Levels

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: “The absence of an actual bill” is one impediment to the Senate taking up climate legislation, the Hill reported earlier this week. The climate leadership troika of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) continue to work behind the scenes to steer the many interests toward a common framework. Key business leaders and allied politicians are reportedly encouraged by movement away from the comprehensive approach that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The oil industry, which found the House bill rather expensive, is listening cautiously to a policy that would require them to pay a “carbon fee” rather than buy into an economy-wide fix. President Barack Obama met with 14 senators for more than an hour Tuesday to talk about their shared goals for viable climate legislation, despite a lack of agreement on details or White House demands.

Graham has threatened to walk away from climate (and immigration) legislation if the Democratic majority passes health care reform through a process called “reconciliation,” which circumambulates typical Senate procedure [CongressDaily, sub. req.].

Two “actual bills” would slow or kill the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Two West Virginia Democrats, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, have co-authored a bill that would freeze the agency’s move for at least two years. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a bill that would undo the EPA’s ruling that greenhouse gas emissions pose public harm.

The international negotiation process stumbles forward, toward its year-end COP-16 meeting in cheery Cancun, Mexico. Please do check out the, uh, planned agenda, participants, and guiding documents, here. India and China this week formally signed up for the Copenhagen Accord, the non-binding, vague document to emerge from the Copenhagen COP-15 meeting in December. The developing giants agreed to be “listed” among the Accord countries, rather than “associated” with them, a lesser affiliation reflecting the current difficulties and confusion.

Not Dead Yet: If there’s an enduring legislative metaphor from 20th century cinema, it’s the classic moment from the absurd comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when a man wheels his cart through a Plague-stricken town, telling residents to “Bring out your dead!” The newest body on the cart suddenly exclaims, “I’m not dead yet,” to which he’s told, “You’ll be stone dead in a moment.” The farce ends when the near-deceased is knocked over the head with a club.

In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, with an election approaching, with health care reform absorbing the Senate, and financial and immigration reform not far behind, conventional wisdom holds that climate legislation in the Senate this year is analogously “not dead yet.” (Disclaimer: The conventional wisdom says a lot of things.) The Chicago Tribune documents the rise of climate-science skepticism in the GOP. Read the story from the bottom-up, and you’ll learn that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recently chatted with his new colleagues Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) about their climate bill, which would limit national emissions, compel big polluters to purchase credits for each ton they’re allowed to emit, and dispatch all the proceeds back to consumers.

The Nicholas Institute this week released a modeling study of Cantwell and Collins’ CLEAR Act. Senior Research Economist Eric Williams compares results to the Energy Information Administration’s analysis of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House of Representatives last summer. The synopsis: The Cantwell bill’s cost to emit a ton of carbon grows from $21 in 2012 to $55 in 2030, a 5.5 percent annual rise. Market demand for carbon credits pushes the price to the maximum allowed under the legislation—called a “price ceiling”—in every year of the program. Net greenhouse gas emissions, including a companion greenhouse gas-reduction program, might result by 2030 in a 16 percent to 19 percent drop below 2005 levels, far short of Cantwell’s target. That’s compared to EIA’s prediction of a 34 percent net drop under the (now politically dead) House climate bill.

We Have Met the Emitter, and He Is Us: Everything about climate change is hard. This week’s reminder came from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published an analysis of national responsibility for emissions based on trade, rather than emissions within borders. Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science conclude that goods and services traded internationally account for nearly a quarter of industrial carbon emissions. Given the amount of manufacturing in and exporting from China, it’s no surprise that its trade partners are “responsible” for nearly as high a percentage of emissions from the world’s largest national polluter.

Oh, Scientific Community… We Know You’re TryingNever underestimate the incompatibility of traditional media and scientific discourse. The Washington Post this morning ran a slim article on an inside page that deserves full quotation by headline and lede:

Is it fair to introduce to readers an ambitious new oversight project by saying what it will not do? Isn’t that a little bit like headlining the article, “Scientists Too Dim to Focus Review on What You and I Know the IPCC’s Problem Is”? It’s not that this is a particularly egregious article—it’s not like it’s the post-Murdoch-takeover Wall Street Journal‘s news page—but what would be so terrible if conventional journalists added in more explanation into their stories? Regular Post readers are likelier to know that the Himalayas will still be there in 2036 than they are to know just how well-understood the basics of climate change are. If you posit the latter, this headline and lede are less than coherent.

Scientists and science writers have begun to fight back against the misinformation and disinformation campaigns against them. But they’re still bleeding. A new Gallop poll shows that half of Americans think climate change is overblown—48 percent, up from 41 percent last year.  Recent work by the authors of last year’s Six Americas study, shows that the number of respondents who are “dismissive” of climate change is has jumped from 7 percent to 16 percent since 2008.

Adaptation, Already in Progress: From Malawi comes this horrifying story of how extreme meteorological patterns can take individual lives. Unusually heavy rain on a house of unbaked mud brick caused a roof collapse that killed a mother, father, and two children in Lilongwe. A Malawi government report to the UN documented that in the last 20 years there have been enough droughts and floods to “clearly show that there are large temporal and spatial variables in the occurrence of climate-related disasters and calamities.”

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, a planning director has the difficult political task of corralling 16 cities and counties into a discussion of adaptation to rising sea levels, when many constituents posit that climate change risk assessments are wrong, made-up, or overblown.

Problem Solved!: The Boston Globe takes up the “competitive conundrum” of clean energy technologies. That’s a snazzy way of saying that new technologies are more expensive than infrastructure from the last century, such as coal, oil, gas, and nuclear. Without a cost breakthrough—either in the form of a scalable energy invention or a functioning government policy—the 21st century energy economy can’t get started.

I can’t help but wonder if the wrong companies are on the case. Shouldn’t Starbucks (which more than doubled the price of coffee), Apple (whose iPod delivers a tenth the sound quality of analog music at four times the cost), and AT&T (more dropped calls) get to work on making expensive-but-clean tech a style-driven phenomenon? How do you put lipstick on an electron?

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. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.

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.