Amid Turbulence A Path For Climate Action

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Maybe things aren’t as dismaying as we thought a week ago. Or just a little less in the dismay department.

In the last few days, two of the prominent names in American politics and business appeared to reach consistent conclusions about governing, technology, and the warming climate.

On Friday, Karl Rove told an audience of natural gas developers in Texas that “climate is gone” as a Congressional issue. And this week, in a Rolling Stone interview, Bill Gates said it will take a breath-taking leap in innovation to meet rising global energy demand and still cut climate-changing pollution. “To have the kind of reliable energy we expect and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon,” said the Microsoft chairman, “we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough.”

Rove and Gates view the crisis from alternate sides of the political spectrum, of course. But in succinctly describing the problem they also indirectly set out a path for climate activism that involves much greater grassroots agitation to win elections, and higher levels of publicly-funded support for clean energy research and development.

Tactics
Both facets of that tactical strategy are within reach. In Washington, the results of the election, while damaging, also left enough sympathetic lawmakers in place to make some progress on the clean energy investment front. Democratic lawmakers intent on making a difference on climate and energy retained their chairmanships in the Senate. And of the 56 members of the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, just seven House and one Senate member lost their bids for reelection. “It should be clear,” said Sam Ricketts, the coalition’s executive director, “that a vote for cap and trade and ardent support for a cleaner environment were not the target of voter anger that many opposed to these policies might lead you to believe.”

In addition, the most important and telling vote for climate action in the country was the strong majority result to enforce the emissions reduction and energy efficiency goals of AB32, California’s climate law. In a game changing marriage of superior campaign financing, message development, and grassroots activism, climate advocates and clean energy venture capitalists outspent, out-organized, and soundly beat the oil industry in a crucial vote.

A New Opening
Climate activists in and outside Washington, who nearly a year ago anticipated a big diplomatic advance in Copenhagen, are justifiably worn by the reverse momentum in the 11 months since. But in the past week, my conversations around the U.S. indicate a resolve among activists to dig deeper and be prepared for a new opening.

That could come sooner than any of us think.

No matter how tightly the fossil fuel industry wraps itself around lawmakers in state capitols and on Capitol Hill, there is still the one motivating electoral factor it cannot control – the American response to rising gasoline prices. The global knife edge that describes the tightening supplies and increasing demand for oil will inevitably tip toward $4-a- gallon gas or higher, say energy industry analysts. When that happens, perhaps in the next year, climate activists need to be ready to identify the culprits who blocked the cheaper and cleaner alternatives and the jobs, prosperity, and safety they would have produced.

— Keith Schneider

Copenhagen’s Fallout: Senate Drops Climate Action From Energy Bill

Senate Drops Climate From Energy Bill

Until December 2009, the idea of acting to cool the Earth was on a roll. High points included 2007 Nobel Prizes for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s breakthrough science and for Al Gore’s astonishing work to elevate global warming to an international priority, They also included Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential election, and the formation of global online grassroots activism led by  350.org and TckTckTck, a project of the Global Campaign For Climate Action.

But that month more than 100 heads of state gathered at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen and failed to reach agreement on binding international measures to limit carbon emissions and secure the planet’s safety. Nowhere has the fallout from Copenhagen’s grim result been more visible than in the U.S. Senate.

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (in pix above with Sen. Kerry on left, and Carol Browner) emerged from a meeting with Democratic colleagues and announced that the new comprehensive climate and energy bill he promised last week would not include specific measures to limit emissions that are warming the Earth.

A much less ambitious bill will be introduced next week, said Sen. Reid, that focuses on a response to the BP Gulf disaster, improvements to energy efficiency, converting vehicle fleets to natural gas, and other narrower energy measures.

The introduction of such a bill would appear to have the effect of squandering the work of the House, which passed a cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 that set a national cap on carbon emissions and required companies to have permits for such emissions. It also would appear, if political polls are accurately forecasting severe Democratic losses in the fall, to kill any chance of capping carbon emissions in this Congress, the next, or even over the next decade.

For the foreseeable future climate action in the U.S. will be ad-hoc, piecemeal, uncoordinated, and not nearly as effective as it could be with a comprehensive legislative approach. If warming temperatures, failing industries, economic malaise, and energy insecurity is your idea of a good time, then this era of American inaction is just what the doctor ordered.

Weeks Of Work By Climate Activists
It’s not that people aren’t trying. The Senate decision to focus the new bill solely on energy came after weeks of intensive work by climate advocates to build a case for emissions limits in and outside Washington, organizing demonstrations at the grassroots, meeting with Senate staff, and raising the issue in the media. Since May, following the explosion and oil blowout in the Gulf, President Barack Obama also had campaigned for climate action in meetings with Senators of both parties, in public appearances outside Washington, and in a televised Oval Office address in June during which he called for a new “national mission” to achieve energy independence and safeguard the environment.

The effort, though, was impeded by opposition messages that asserted, with scant basis in fact, that limiting carbon emissions would severely raise energy prices and living costs, and by the prevailing politics of stasis on climate issues that define the era. Lawmakers in Australia, Japan, and Canada are having similar difficulties getting strong climate bills approved. The Copenhagen summit was a study in how pride and posturing trumped economic and ecological urgency.

“Many of us want to do a thorough comprehensive bill that creates jobs, breaks our addiction to foreign oil, and curbs pollution,” said Sen. Reid at a hastily called news conference today.  “Unfortunately at this time we don’t have a single Republican to work with in achieving this goal. For me it’s terribly disappointing and it’s also very dangerous.”

In The Face Of Record Heat, No Action
Indeed, Sen. Reid’s announcement came the same week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2010 is the hottest year on record, and on the same day that China said it would enact domestic carbon trading programs starting next year to help meet its target of reducing the nation’s carbon pollution.

“It should be a wake-up call that the same day Republican opposition kills a carbon price in the Senate, China announces it will put a price on carbon in 2011,” Joshua Freed, the director of clean energy program at the Third Way, a centrist think tank, told the Washington Post.

Appearing at the news conference with Sen. Reid was Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is widely regarded as the Senate’s most important advocate for reducing carbon emissions. Sen. Kerry promised to keep trying to find an opening to introduce and pass climate legislation in the Senate. “It’s not dying. It’s not going away,” he said. “We’re going to try our best to find a way to do it in the next few weeks. If we can’t do it in the next weeks, we’ll do something that begins to do something responsibly in the short term. But this will stay out there, and we’ll be working on it. We’ll be asking you to talk to your senators and move them to understand why we have to get this done.”

President Obama dispatched Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, to join Senators Reid and Kerry in making the announcement. Her assessment of a large portion of the problem was characteristically direct and unvarnished: “”As we stand here today we don’t have one Republican vote,” she said.

Democrats Not United in Support, Republicans United Against
Still, neither Reid nor Kerry were able to marshal consistent support from Democrats either. New West Virginia Democratic Senator Carte Goodwin, who this month replaced the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, announced even before he arrived in Washington that he would not support measures to limit carbon emissions. Other Democrats, most notably Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, also periodically expressed opposition.

Advocates of climate action expressed equal measures of frustration and resolve to keep trying today. “It’s deeply disappointing that Big Oil, Dirty Coal and their allies in Congress continue to stand in the way of creating a clean energy economy that creates jobs, makes America more energy independent and protects the planet,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “The twin challenges of building a clean energy economy and addressing global warming are too important to fail.  The fight to create new clean energy jobs and solve the climate crisis will continue — in this Congress, in the states and at the EPA.”

“Due to Republican leaders inaction,” said Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, “China will continue to expand its clean energy industry and jobs. We will spend $1 billion each day on foreign oil. And power plants will spew billions of tons of pollution.”

— Keith Schneider

Obama Makes Progress on Climate But Environmental Community Divided

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President Obama on Friday directed the EPA and the Transportation Department to develop a national policy to increase fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from medium and heavy-duty trucks in time for the 2014 model year. The action comes almost exactly one year (May 19, 2009) after President Obama set new fuel and emissions standards for new cars and light trucks sold in the United States beginning with the 2012 model year.

The 2009 standards require manufacturers to raise average fuel economy for cars to 39 mpg , and light trucks and SUVs to 30 mpg by 2016. The EPA estimated the new standards would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil from 2012 to 2016, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 900 million metric tons, the equivalent of closing almost 200 coal-fired power plants.

Clean Car Legacy
Combined with the investments in clean car and new battery technology that were features of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as the massive federal aid to prevent General Motors and Chrysler from going out of business, it is clear one of the significant climate action legacies of the Obama presidency is pushing vehicle manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient and much cleaner products.

The White House announcement on fuel efficiency was dropped into an energy and climate news cycle that five months past the Copenhagen climate summit is suddenly spinning with significantly greater urgency.

The Gulf spill, growing larger by the day, is daily evidence of the lengths the nation was ready to take to satisfy its addiction to oil, and the massive economic and environmental damage deep sea drilling can cause.

Pragmatism and Principle
The American Power Act, introduced last week, includes troubling provisions designed to secure more offshore oil.
But it also proposes to cap carbon emissions and provide for significant investments in clean energy, clean cars, transit and other energy conserving job-producing practices.

And the National Academy of Sciences published three studies this week that together again confirm that mankind is responsible for the warming earth and conditions are getting more dire.

All of this, and especially the American Power Act, has generated a moment-of-truth within the environmental community that is framed by the contest between pragmatism and principle. The new bill, if it passes, would be the second in as many years to focus substantial federal investment on emissions-reducing, job-producing, clean energy investments. Last year’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act included over $100 billion to jumpstart the transition to a low-carbon economy. The new climate and energy bill, along with proposing to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, also includes strong federal support for energy-conserving, and alternative clean energy practices and equipment.

President Obama, recognizing the deep division, fear, and skepticism that dominate this era, is nevertheless steadily making progress in responding to climate change. One other step he needs to take is to support the climate and energy bill. But in the tilt between pragmatism and principle it is not clear where American environmentalism will land.

— Keith Schneider

Oil Devotion Could Mean Climate No Motion

The one-foot waves today in the Gulf of Mexico were described as “tranquil” as BP started to lower a 70-ton case through 5,000 feet of water to contain the source of an oil leak that threatens the shorelines of four states. Guiding the steel cover over the well shaft in pitch-black waters at crushing depths, said engineers, is like floating a toy parachute off the Empire State Building and landing on a paperclip in the street.oil-booms

The political equivalent, of course, is what’s happening in the Senate with the climate and energy bill, which also is navigating in murky political waters and under enormous partisan pressure.

Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, in a joint statement today, said they would introduce a comprehensive climate and energy bill next Wednesday. They said they would do so without the participation of Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been working for months on climate and energy policy with his two Senate colleagues. Sen. Graham abandoned the effort last week over differences with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over timing of the floor debate on the Senate energy bill, and immigration.

Kerry and Lieberman Promote Climate Bill
Senators Kerry and Lieberman said they were enthusiastic about the bill’s chances. “The last weeks have given everyone with a stake in this issue a heightened understanding that as a nation, we can no longer wait to solve this problem which threatens our economy, our security and our environment,” said the statement. “Our optimism is bolstered because there is a growing and unprecedented bi-partisan coalition from the business, national security, faith and environmental communities that supports our legislation and is energized to work hard and get it passed.”

Carol Browner, the assistant to the president for energy and climate change, told Bloomberg Television, that the Gulf spill could help spur public support for the bill. “This accident, this tragedy, is actually heightening people’s interest in energy in this country and in wanting a different energy plan,” Browner said.

The Gulf spill did indeed provide fresh evidence of the dramatic consequences of the nation’s devotion to oil, and prompted grassroots demonstrations to encourage clean energy investment and to reduce oil demand in several Gulf coast communities and around the country. In addition climate science, which forms the research foundation for new policy that encourages the clean energy transition to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, also generated fresh attention this week.

Science Supported
On Friday, Science Magazine published a letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences that stated “there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.” The letter, written in response to the December hacking of email messages from East Anglia University and other attacks on climate science, also called to an end to the “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

Politics and Oil
The letter also came as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli targets Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and former faculty member of University of Virginia. The attorney general is demanding that the university turn over e-mails and other documents that involve Mann’s research and contacts under a statute that is designed to detect fraud in government contracts, an action the Washington Post called “chilling.”

The targeting of climate scientists by political opponents is hampering action on the climate and energy bill. So is the Gulf spill and its long streams of oil the color of dried blood. Early in the week Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida held a news conference to alert their colleagues that any provisions that expand offshore oil exploration have no place in a comprehensive climate and energy bill. By the way, those one-foot waves? Winds and waves are expected to pick up considerably over the weekend.

— Keith Schneider

When It Comes to Climate and Clean Energy, “Just Say No” Has Become Too Popular

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Monday, in the parlance of Washington policy and journalism, was scheduled to be a potential day of breakthrough in the work to achieve action on the warming climate. Senators John Kerry (Mass.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) had announced that they’d come to consensus on what a bipartisan energy and climate policy fit for the 21st century looked like. The results were to be unveiled at a news briefing that had global import.

Instead nothing happened. It was like reeling in a sailfish, all fight and silvery splash, only to have the beast die on the way into the boat.

This is the third time in five months that that I’ve been involved in climate and clean energy campaigns that culminated in less than they promised. “Just say no” is emerging as a far easier answer than saying yes to progress.

In Copenhagen in December, nearly 200 nations gathered at the largest summit ever with the express purpose of reaching agreement on a climate treaty. Instead what they came up with was a novel accord that points in the right direction and may not achieve more than that.

In Traverse City, a small utility’s bid to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources, including a state-of-the-art clean right-sized clean burning 10 mw wood biomass plant, generated such fierce hyperbole about unfounded risks among some environmentalists that you’d have thought the utility was proposing a 100-acre toxic waste site for the middle of town. The local push back, led by a grassroots environmental group, is consistent with similar resistance in 30 other states to proposals for new wind, solar, geothermal, wood biomass, and transmission lines. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on a big offshore wind farm in Massachusetts that has been the focus on a popular opposition campaign. The clean energy transition may not be televised.

Now comes the Senate’s attempt to push through a climate and energy bill, which over the weekend got washed up on the shoals of partisanship, immigration policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, and the powerful climate change-denying communications machine operated by America’s fossil fuel collective.

Today, Senator Reid retreated just a bit and sought to assure his Democratic and Republican colleagues that debate on the climate and energy bill would come before debate on the immigration bill. That makes sense since there is no immigration bill to debate in the Senate. But Graham, a very lonely Republican in the climate and clean energy space, has not yet indicated whether he’s ready to participate in introducing the ready-to-go energy bill that he’s spent months shaping with Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

The politics of stasis — of doing nothing — is brought action on climate change to a crawl, and that may be kind. The public will to act, to reduce emissions of carbon, to provide for the safety of the planet and all its inhabitants, is just not apparent in the United States, or in much of the rest of the developed world.

Clearly, a new operating program is needed politically and a new communications frame and strategy needs to be developed. Today the Environmental Protection Agency made public a new report on climate change effects that are getting worse:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.
  • Average temperatures are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.
  • Tropical cyclone intensity has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • Sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

Still, people in the United States aren’t much concerned. They are clearly indicating,  in grassroots fights and in support for lawmakers who counsel to do nothing, that they are satisfied with the way things are. That is a dangerous sentiment in an unsettled world making powerful and swift transitions in every important sector — the economy, markets, the environment, energy, population, and competition for resources.

— Keith Schneider