After the defeat

“Sometimes dead really is dead — and for this Congress, barring a miracle, climate action is finished. With an ugly election looming in November, it may be years before we get another chance to debate a bill that prices carbon.”


That’s Eric Pooley writing this week in Yale e360. He’s the author of The Climate War, reviewed here a month ago. His e360 article recognises a defeat. But not the war’s end.

“Some will argue that this latest setback is proof that the U.S. will never cap carbon. I reject that view. All we can say for sure is that the U.S. will never cap or price carbon until the politics of the issue change — so the first order of business must be to begin improving the political atmosphere.”

He looks at the main culprits of the current defeat and suggests how strategy might be improved for the future

The Professional Deniers. Their disinformation, amplified via the Internet, helped poison the debate. To counter the deniers’ campaign, President Obama needs to speak out forcefully, and champions of the clean energy economy must point to how effective it is proving.

Senate Republicans. It’s hard to forge centrist solutions when an entire party is denying there’s a problem and vilifying the solutions. A scaled-back approach, one that can be sold as a modest, incremental step and not a new industrial revolution, might fare better.

Senate Democrats. A dozen or more centrist Democrats — from states that either mine coal or produce much of their electricity from it — were dug in against the bill. It is impossible to tell if the senators were truly concerned about what the cap would do to their state economies — nonpartisan studies suggest its impact would be minimal — or just worried about what attack ads would do to them. Again, a more modest first step could change the dynamic.

The Green Group. The Green Group (an unofficial association of the leaders of the big U.S. environmental organisations) held out for an economy-wide bill even after it became clear, in late 2009, that it was unachievable in the Senate. Only recently, and too late, did they try to negotiate a compromise cap on electric power plants, which account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions.

The Power Barons. They sought too much by way of free carbon allowances and regulation easing.  The pleasure some of them took in the demise of the bill may be short-lived as the battle to reduce emissions moves to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the courts. There was only one player with the clout to cut a fair deal with the power barons and he was missing in action.

The President. He chose not to lead on this issue. He never threw himself behind a particular climate bill. He left it to the Senate, the Green Group, and the power bosses — all of whom were sorely in need of adult supervision. To the bitter end, the White House pursued what his aides called a “stealth strategy” that deployed the president only sparingly. It was a colossal failure of nerve, and a decision that likely destroyed any chance of achieving climate action in Obama’s first term.

It may take time to get another shot at legislation, but in the meantime Pooley points to important work to be done. Greenhouse gas emissions have been dropping in the US, and not just because of the recession. Many clean energy projects are under way across the country that save money, create jobs and reduce emissions. Existing regulatory authority can enhance that trend. It won’t be sufficient, but it will provide evidence to voters that cuts are both technologically feasible and economically sustainable.

Until the next legislative opportunity comes the climate war will be waged by cities, states, regional cap-and-trade programmes, and, above all, the EPA. It will be the sort of costly, protracted, plant-by-plant trench warfare the cap was intended to avoid. Since the utilities and the manufacturers weren’t willing to cut a deal, this is what they get. The fragile period of compromise and cooperation between environmentalists and big business may now be coming to an end.

There will be an attempt to strip the EPA of its authority over carbon. That is a fight Obama can’t possibly duck because “it is our last line of defence”.

I welcomed those early bold words of Obama on climate change: “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.” Not all the blame for this defeat can be laid at his door, but he has hardly displayed the upfront leadership his words indicated we might expect.

Not that leading from the front would necessarily have produced a different outcome.  Those opposing forces which Pooley identifies are very powerful in American society and Pooley, critical though he is of the President, doesn’t suggest that a head-on collision would have produced a better result. In fact he seems to be suggesting that a more incremental strategy may be the best way to counter the implacability of the bill’s political opponents.

Incidentally, Joe Romm notices that Eric Pooley omits the press from his “Murderers’ Row” listing for the bill’s homicide.  It’s an omission he finds surprising given that in his book Pooley takes the press to task. Romm himself would certainly add them. He even posits that if Obama hadn’t wimped out and had delivered strong public messages the media might well have destroyed the impact by “balancing” it with bad economics and scientific disinformation.

Pooley has followed the climate war closely over a period of three years, as he details in his book. He didn’t predict a successful Senate outcome. Indeed he concluded the book with a picture of campaigners shaking off their blues, throwing back their shoulders, and marching back to the sound of the guns. What else can they do?

Postscript: The kind of pressure the EPA is likely to experience and the robustness of its response can be seen in its recent rejection of petitions challenging its 2009 determination that climate change is real, is occurring due to emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities, and threatens human health and the environment.

Obama’s failed climate strategy

Obama must take a different tack, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, writing in the Guardian. The President has been pursuing a failed strategy of negotiating with senators and key industries to try to forge an agreement, making no headway in the back rooms of the White House and Congress. What he should have done, and still should do, is to present a coherent plan to the American people.

“He should propose a sound strategy over the next 20 years for reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels, converting to electric vehicles, and expanding non-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind power. He could then present an estimated price tag for phasing in these changes over time, and demonstrate that the costs would be modest compared to the enormous benefits.”

The candidate of change has not presented real plans of action for change. Sachs charges that the administration is in the paralysing grip of special-interest groups. He’s not sure whether this is an intended outcome to secure large campaign donations or just the result of poor decision-making, or maybe a bit of both.

Sachs has several things to say leading up to his urging a presidential plan. He opens with a blunt statement. “All signs suggest that the planet is still hurtling headlong toward climatic disaster.” Yet we still fail to act.

He identifies three major challenges which make action difficult.  First, energy and agriculture (including deforestation to create new farmland) are the two principal sources of emissions, and they are two economic sectors which stand at the centre of the global economy and involve the whole world’s population. It’s no small matter to change those systems.

The second challenge is the complexity of the science, involving many thousands of scientists in all parts of the world. Uncertainties attend the precise magnitude, timing, and dangers of climate change. The general public has difficulty grappling with this complexity and uncertainty, especially as changes occur over a timetable of decades and centuries rather than months and years, and are intermixed with natural variations.

The third problem arises from a combination of the economic implications and the uncertainties of the science. It is the “brutal, destructive campaign” against climate science by powerful vested interests and ideologues, aimed at creating an atmosphere of ignorance and confusion. Major oil companies and other corporates have financed disreputable PR campaigns, exaggerating the uncertainties and absurdly charging that climate scientists are engaged in some kind of conspiracy to frighten the public.

Sachs attacks the Wall Street Journal’s aggressive editorial campaign against climate science, which has been running for decades:

“The individuals involved in this campaign are not only scientifically uninformed, but show absolutely no interest in becoming better informed. They have turned down repeated offers by climate scientists to meet and conduct serious discussions about the issues.”

There is a fourth over-arching problem — the unwillingness or inability of US politicians to formulate a sensible climate-change policy, despite America’s central role in global emissions. When Obama was elected he clearly wanted to move forward on this issue, but will not be able to do so on the path so far chosen.

Sachs’ comment seemed to me to say all the important things with clarity and precision. And he’s in no doubt about what is at stake. We are courting disaster.

“Nature doesn’t care about our political machinations. And nature is telling us that our current economic model is dangerous and self-defeating. Unless we find some real global leadership in the next few years, we will learn that lesson in the hardest ways possible.”

Sachs is no intellectual lightweight. His books The End of Poverty and Common Wealth have been widely read.  He has twice been named as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004 and 2005. The clear perception he displays of the central issues of climate change for the US must surely represent a substantial body of educated American opinion. Alas, not yet substantial enough. For the present the babble of denial and delay prevails.

Count to ten

Heidi Cullen at Climate Central covers the highlights of NOAA’s State of the Climate: 2009 report, released yesterday (NOAA press release here). Key message: ten of the most important climate indicators, with multiple datasets for each, show that the planet is warming.


It’s worth digging around at the NOAA site linked above — there are animated graphics of all the key datasets (such as sea surface temperature), and NOAA’s new ClimateWatch site also has some nifty graphics — a climate data dashboard — to play with.

The full report is a 110MB download (here) and covers 2009’s climate and weather events in detail, but there’s a 10 page summary for the impatient here. More coverage at Skeptical Science and the Guardian.


No energy for change

Gerry Brownlee’s draft energy strategy for New Zealand is an interesting read, but not perhaps in the way the government intended. As Bryan discussed in his comment on the strategy, Brownlee puts mining and drilling up front and centre, and relegates environmental and carbon issues to a definite second place in government priorities. You might infer from the document that this is a “strategy” that has been designed to fit with what the government wants to do, rather than what is actually necessary. But what struck me most forcefully was the apparent lack of any well-thought out or detailed context for the strategy. Let’s see if we can supply some, and see where that leads us…

Continue reading “No energy for change”

Brownlee’s energy strategy: dig and burn

The newly released Draft NZ Energy Strategy (PDF, web) is a winding back of the clock from the substantial statement released under the previous government only three years ago. When announcing early in his term as Minister that a new strategy was required Gerry Brownlee complained of the old one:

“You need only read the foreword of the NZES. “Sustainability” and “sustainable” are mentioned thirteen times, “greenhouse gas” is mentioned four times, and “climate change” is mentioned three times. That is all very good, but security of supply rates only one mention. Affordability is not touched on at all. Nor is economic growth.”

Continue reading “Brownlee’s energy strategy: dig and burn”