The Empiricist Strikes Back

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: Let’s first pause for a moment to recognize where we are. Three U.S. Senators took the mantle for climate and climate leadership in this Congress, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman. Over a series of many months, involving many colleagues, many industries, and many advocacy groups, they emerged with the seed of a new deal that might satisfy competing constituencies. The framework (reportedly) has something for everyone, a cost for emitting greenhouse gases, expanded nuclear power, and offshore oil exploration. Environmental groups, frequently splintered, circled their wagons to support the effort.

Then came two explosions, one political, one physical. In a surprise move last month, Senate leadership fast-tracked immigration reform ahead of energy. That caused Graham to step back from the climate legislation. And then came the Gulf oil disaster. What started out as an already ambitious climate effort is now engulfed with immigration politics and an intensified national fight over offshore drilling. That’s where we are. And yet…

…Uncertainty Springs Eternal: “Graham says ‘impossible’ to pass climate bill now” reads an online headline at the Washington Post (above an AP story). The finality of the statement promises to clear remaining doubt that the Senate will not be able to pass legislation in the wake of the oil spill. Some senators would never vote for a climate-and-energy bill without provisions for expanding offshore drilling. Some senators would never vote for a climate-and-energy bill with those provisions. Game, set, match, before immigration reform is even broached. Or vice versa–until you remember that in politics nothing is ever over.

Congress DailyAM: “Graham Says Climate Measure Has a Chance Over Time”
E&E Daily: “Graham says he could vote for energy bill, but oil spill requires a timeout”
Roll Call: “Graham Sees No Hope for Climate Bill This Year”

and, not to be discounted…

Greenwire: “Senate bill to be rolled out on Wednesday”

Here’s what Graham  said in a release after the E&E Daily story ran.

Fly on the Wall: Der Spiegel obtained “audio recordings of historical significance,” two 1.2 gigabyte sound files “that were created by accident” at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP-15) climate negotiation in Copenhagen last December. The magazine reconstructs an hour and a half of a meeting with 25 heads of state. The prime ministers, presidents, and other leaders gathered to discuss undercooked material hurriedly assembled by advisers and negotiators in the waning days and hours of the conference. “When has it ever been the case at an international conference that world leaders had to concern themselves with such minor details?,” Der Spiegel asks, and finds an answer from UN chief negotiator Yvo de Boer: “I don’t think anything like this has ever happened, and I’m not sure whether something like this will ever happen again.”

Some participants and observers at Copenhagen have charged that China obstructed discussions, most vividly by dispatching a diplomat to a heads-of-state meeting. In those tension-filled days, China was already undertaking what the New York Times reports as history’s largest six-month increase in greenhouse gas pollution by one country. The emissions trend prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to call a special cabinet session to address the nation’s energy binge and decline in energy efficiency. The jump is a taste of what’s ahead as Chinese consumers continue to electrify their lifestyle, and the economy moves from light to heavy manufacturing.

Every week there are stories about “bad China” (see previous paragraph) and “good China,” the emerging world leader in clean tech. “Good China” is frequently wielded as a rhetorical bludgeon in op-ed discussions. Here’s this week’s contribution, from Bruce Usher, an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School.

Scientists Clear Their Throats: Political attacks on climate scientists continue. The Washington Post editorial page, host to George Will’s occasional column-length scientific errors, labels “a chilling assault” the Virginia Attorney General’s ferocious, ignorant queries into a climate scientist’s records when he was a University of Virginia faculty member. Politicians have a responsibility to investigate fraud. But Michael Mann’s case had been picked over for years, even before the e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia were released late last year. AG Ken Cuccinelli has accused Mann of defrauding Virginia taxpayers by receiving grants to study climate change. In heated rhetoric atypical of Post editorials on climate change, editors declare that Cuccinelli has “declared war on reality” and on free academic inquiry.

Scientists, who speak in nuance, not absolutes, have been slow to respond adequately to opponents in politics and elsewhere, who speak in absolutes, not nuance.  This week 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences howl into the stratosphere over public attacks on well-understood scientific observations, including:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A  snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human  activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

The lead author of this important and timely statement from 255 scientists published a new book this week, called Bottled and Sold. Peter Gleick is a leading global expert in water and climate change, and co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. He recently answered the question, What’s “the best argument against global warming”?

A Nudge in the Other Direction?: Behavioral and social scientists continue to offer intriguing glimpses into how people understand, and misunderstand, climate and energy issues, sometimes peppered with tempting ideas to “nudge” change along. One result: People are more likely to cut electricity use if they’re told how much more they use than their neighbors. Such studies launched innumerable discussions, from academia to cocktail parties, and at least one company.  New research suggests limitations to this particular nudge: Liberals might go for it more than some conservatives. The latter ignore the peer pressure in greater numbers, or even increase energy use as an “act of defiance.”

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.