New Strategery?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: The White House, senators, businesses, environmental NGOs, lobbying groups, and the international community conspired this week to shred any discernible central narrative in the climate story. While this situation might be easily recognized as a normal state of affairs–coming after the singular focus on Copenhagen, and then the singular focus on the holiday break–the diversity and scale of disagreements over how to respond to climate risk are striking. (Caveat: News media are biased toward reporting conflict.)

China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (the BASIC bloc) plan to meet in New Delhi this month, ahead of the Jan. 31 deadline to submit their “mitigating actions” to the U.N. climate change secretariat. The Obama administration and key senators reiterated their support for comprehensive legislation to set a market price for industrial dumping of carbon dioxide emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency found itself the target of criticism from the American Farm Bureau Federation over its new carbon-dioxide regulations. North Dakota is threatening to sue Minnesota over the latter’s new climate policy.

Looking forward to Copenhagen was more fun than looking back is. And looking forward to Cancun (!) isn’t necessarily something everyone is looking forward to. Oh, how to make sense of it all?

“Strategy” Session: Good questions came in after last week’s ruminations, none more fundamental than this: What does “climate strategy” mean after Copenhagen? Let’s take a look.

Abroad: Judging by the proliferation of tactical and other variety disputes this week, it’s clear that there is no dominant strategy at the moment. The UNFCC process had the veneer of dominance, but behind that it seems like it’s just every carbon-polluting entity for itself. What we’re looking at now is something of a reversion to (or progression toward!) the marketplace of ideas, where plans to address climate change will compete for attention from the politicians and policymakers who decide on courses of action.

Say what you want about the Copenhagen Accord hammered out by the BASIC countries and the U.S.: It’s organic and lays bare observations whispered about for some time. Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes, “The two weeks of COP-15 illustrated four specific problems, most of which were apparent long before the Copenhagen meetings.”

A snub to the European Union, the Accord was produced by a small group of nations self-selecting, on the spot, based on geopolitics and economic scale and perceived vulnerability. Perhaps this is a signal that the new strategy is “anyone who can work together should work together.” Perhaps this is a signal that China has enough influence to almost unilaterally dictate the terms of international agreement. The confusion is epitomized by U.S. deputy special envoy Jonathan Pershing and U.K. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband:

Pershing: “It is impossible to imagine a global agreement in place that doesn’t essentially have a global buy-in. There aren’t other institutions beside the UN that have that… We are going to have a very, very difficult time moving forward and it will be a combination of small and larger processes.”

Miliband: “I am confident we can get an agreement as we have made a lot of progress over the last year… We are trying to get consensus from 192 countries from very different places to be part of an agreement. That is tough and that’s what Copenhagen showed.”

At Home: ­­ This week’s Senate intrigue concerned whether legislators might scoop the cap-and-trade system out of climate legislation and run with a scaled-down energy bill.  Conflict-monger Politico glazes over the dispute and the Wall Street Journal‘s Environmental Capital blog concludes its “Scrap-and-Trade” post by saying that “[t]here’s reason to think a clean-energy future could still be in the offing even if Congress does take the path of least resistance and scraps plans for cap-and-trade this year.”

The WSJ article looks at the Senate, but just down the street the EPA advances its plans to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The farm lobby’s vocal opposition was met by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is threatening a lawsuit in language less incendiary than its call for climate science hearings last August. States are asking for more time and small businesses are opposing the policy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). put off introduction of an amendment that would nix the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The move came after the Washington Post reported that two lobbyists “helped craft” the measure.

Conventional wisdom holds that failure in the U.N. arena and potential failure on Capitol Hill will push market-based program out to the states. But if cash-strapped California is any indication, a cold economy can cool interest in climate policy. The LA Times reports a decline in public interest in air pollution and related issues. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has suggested the state hold off on implementing its new rules on the emission of heat-trapping gases. So much for carbon-credit auctions on eBay…

The first big legal skirmish over a climate law could come between North Dakota and Minnesota. The latter has put in place regulations that could raise the cost of electricity in that state–even electrons transmitted from neighboring North Dakota. N.D. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem threatened in late December to file a lawsuit, probably over the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. [Nicholas Institute Director Tim Profeta has written about the issues involved in the Environmental Law Reporter. Pdf here.]

Mailbag (Send Your Questions Here!): Another reader asked last week, Can the USCAP model apply to the global climate framework? How do boundary-spanning entities like leading NGOs, global business, and religious communities engage in a meaningful, constructive way?

Respondents essentially answered the question with another question:  How has USCAP’s position emerged and evolved in the domestic debate? The US Climate Action Partnership is the group of more than two dozen companies and several environmental NGOs. A year ago USCAP released an influential blueprint for climate legislation, which was largely adopted by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in what became the House climate bill. However, as debate over legislative details has become higher-pitched, there’s no public indication that USCAP ever re-reached its initial escape velocity.

A USCAP-like group focused on an international climate agreement would likely experience similar pressures. The big ideas are hard, but easier than the fine print. Another issue appears to be the structure of the UNFCC events itself, which makes it difficult or impossible for corporations to register and take part. The Major Economies Forum may be a more receptive place for businesses who want to register their voices.

The Haitian Earthquake: There’s no direct tie-in to this week’s tragedy, except this: The climate debates are largely driven by our drives for lasting security and prosperity, and the avoidance of human suffering.

Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead addressed students, faculty, and staff in a public letter, and directed attention to relief efforts posted here and here.

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 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.