Monday, April 27, 2009

Industry undercutting Science

This short article that appeared in the NYT recently is one smoking gun that big polluting companies have intentionally been sowing doubt and misinformation among the public for over a decade on global warming. It's quite intuitive: companies are programmed to maximize profits, not public education or long term welfare. So when the two come into conflict (in this case, when deceiving the public and delaying action to stop global warming would increase profits), coal and oil companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to convince the U.S. government to go against the interests of its citizens.

Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, they have been tragically successful. Here's a excerpt from the article:

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the merits of an international agreement, policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet. Today, with general agreement on the basics of warming, the debate has largely moved on to the question of how extensively to respond to rising temperatures.

Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

“They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A new poll just released has some promising data on American attitudes:
"When you make a mess, you're supposed to clean up after yourself," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University's Project on Climate Change. "We think many Americans view climate change in a similar way. The United States should act to reduce its own emissions regardless of what other countries do."

Peoples' primary concerns about reducing global warming were that it would lead to more government regulation (44 percent), cause energy prices to rise (31 percent) or cost jobs and harm the economy (17 percent), the researchers said. However, among those who believed both positive and negative outcomes will occur, 92 percent said that despite their concerns, the nation should act to reduce global warming.
I'm actually surprised at these results. I would like to believe them, but it also seems like the funders of the poll would also like to believe optimistic numbers like these. Do they reflect the attitudes you've seen around you?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Drawing Lines and Capturing Carbon

One thing I've learned from my brief stint as an advocate is the importance of the ability to draw lines in the sand.

American culture values unity and compromise, and shies away from conflict.* But conflicts do exist, even in the most benign relationships, and being able to recognize them is critical to making sure they are resolved correctly.

Relevant example for today: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is a technology that would capture carbon dioxide from the emissions of a power plant or other pollution source and keep it stored somewhere so that it wouldn't be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

Great, right? Global warming sucks, a lot of global warming pollution comes from coal plants, this would make them less bad! Isn't this a great compromise between the extreme environmentalists who want to cut off our electricity to stop global warming and the extreme coal kings on the other side that care about nothing but selling their fuel?

Well, it might be a good idea, if were cheap and doable. Unfortunately, as a great article in The Economist points out, it is neither. Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are much cheaper and are proven to work, so if you have some time to help stop global warming, you should spend it setting up solar panels and wind turbines rather than trying to figure out how to make CCS work.

So why is the CCS idea still talked about so much? Yes, The Economist article just came out, but trust me, it wasn't the first and it won't be the last nail in the coffin of CCS. It's because of politics.

Having an idea of a technology that would make coal not so bad is a great way for the coal industry to pretend like they care about global warming and are doing the right thing to help stop it. But it's purely political; a few years ago they were denying global warming was even a problem; the switch to the promise of undeveloped technologies is just proof that they're losing the P.R. battle with scientists and environmentalists and now they're trying to 'compromise'.

Unfortunately, every dollar spent on CCS is a dollar not spent (or sometimes saved from) energy efficiency and renewable energy, which will do even more to reduce global warming pollution and create jobs.

So if you see a well-choreographed advertisement for 'clean coal', draw the line in the sand. There are those fighting to stop global warming, and those more worried about their own profits. Which side is the ad on? Sadly, it's helping to perpetuate the unacceptable status quo. In fact, that's what it's trying to do.

* Want evidence? Do you have family members with whom you won't discuss politics or religion? Have you ever been part of a group decision that was more intent on compromise then on making the right decision? Ok, I'm making you come up with your examples for me. But I think it should work ; ]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cracks in the Environmental Community?

The national environmental community, while far from the most powerful alliance in DC, has found itself with more influence in the current political climate after decades of organizing. Now, one of the greatest challenges is to maintain a united message in an already diverse coalition. But one of my responsibilities is also to enact strong global warming legislation, even if coalition partners are selling short.

So when a coalition of 3 environmental groups and a score of regulated industries* released a report last week calling for a weak bill, many environmental groups pushed back. To see the harshest example, see this post in a popular environmental community insider blog, which argues that the "Blueprint" proposal falls way short of what science says we need. David Hawkins of NRDC, who was a big player in crafting the Blueprint, shot back in the comments section, and was allowed to create his own full post on the same blog, arguing that it was necessary politically. What follows below is my response to that post:

David’s point that environmental groups in USCAP must consider political strategy, and not just science, is absolutely right. But is the blueprint good strategy?

By finding a compromise between some environmental groups and some dirty industry companies, USCAP’s blueprint puts a stake in the sand for global warming policy. While it is too early to tell how heavy the stake is, it will inevitably draw politically-feasible outcomes towards itself. Industry groups asking for a weaker bill or no action will find their position less tenable in the face of industrial brethren that say the blueprint could be done without economic harm. Likewise, environmental groups will find it harder to demand stronger action with their allies having endorsed a weaker position.

Thus whether the move is helpful or harmful to strong global warming policy depends on what we would have gotten without it. If we would have gotten something worse, it will increase the likelihood of getting something better, and vice versa.

It is for this level of strategy that David has failed to give a convincing argument. Would we really have not been able to get anything better than this without the blueprint? The reaction of the environmental community makes it clear that most think too much was given away; we believe we can do more, and probably still can, despite the blueprint.

David argues, convincingly, that the industry groups that participated in USCAP also made impressive concessions. But it is not relevant which side gave up more, what’s relevant is what is possible now. The USCAP strategy, from the participating environmental groups’ perspective, was based on the assumption that the industry heel-dragging that has been the biggest obstacle for climate policy in the last decade would continue to be insurmountable. But the strategy fails to recognize the power of grassroots organizing and visionary leadership to sweep over the heads of special interests.

While USCAP was busy finding a document some people from all sides could agree on, Americans were busy organizing to kick out the naysayers and vote in the visionaries. So out comes the compromise between the industry and the enviros, after the enviros already won the public debate.

This isn’t a time to compromise, it’s time to follow the mandate of the American people and get it right. As David concedes, the blueprint doesn’t get it right.

*In this case, 'regulated industries' refers not to current legislation, but the fact that if we passed a cap and trade program, these industries would be subject to it (coal, oil, manufacturing, etc.).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Drawing Straws

Today a classified intelligence report focused attention on some of the lesser-known evils of unabated global warming, including poverty, weak governments, and terrorism. The report concludes that those problems are exacerbated by global warming, similar to previous assessments by U.S. security agencies.

While the theory isn't new, the provocative findings remind me of an interesting question that economists and policy wonks continue to puzzle over: How can uncertain and dramatic hypotheses about global warming tell us how to stop it?

In a simpler world, if every ton of global warming pollution caused $10 of damage to society (such as by withering crops), then economists would simply want to tax global warming pollution at $10/ton. That way, the price of things that cause global warming pollution would rise (by $10 per ton of pollution caused), and people would only pollute when it was worth it to them, despite the added financial cost. Pollution would still exist, but less of it, and only when it was worth it to society overall.

Unfortunately, as we were reminded by the report today, the cost to society from global warming is far from simple. The potential consequences range from changes in weather, such as more flooding and droughts, to changes in economies, such as declining agriculture in areas that currently use rain instead of irrigation, to changes in geo-politics, such as more civil unrest and extremism in poor areas where agriculture is no longer able to feed the people. Understanding any one of these areas is enough to keep hundreds of scientists or social scientists busy for their entire careers.

So, if you had to make a rough guess, how much damage would you say a ton of CO2 creates, over it's 100-year life-cycle? $10?

If the question seems absurd, you're probably on the right track. Not that economists aren't already trying to answer that question, but with all the uncertainties involved, not just in scale of damage, but also in terms of how much pollution will cause which effects, existing science is just not up to the task.

But there is one calculation that many climatologists have begun to answer that can be just as informative for global warming policy. Because many of the consequences of global warming (such as melting ice and thawing permafrost) are expected to cause more global warming pollution, and there are several very bad things that could happen all at once (such as the Antarctic ice sheet collapsing, lifting sea levels by several meters), many climatologists have begun to see global warming pollution like straw on a camel's back: it may be tolerable for a while, but at some point, one straw too many will make all the difference.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the worlds most respected consensus of global warming-related scientists, has even started to put a number on it. They say, if we want to have a decent shot at avoiding the worst consequences of global warming (the broken camel), we must keep the concentration of global warming pollution to below 450 parts per million.

Interestingly, that understanding does little to help us calculate the ideal tax on global warming pollution. But it does point to another solution: cap-and-trade. Make sure that we reduce our pollution by at least 80% by 2050, and unleash the power of our free market economy to figure out how to get there.

So let's get to it!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Next President Supports Cap and Trade

McCain reiterated his support for a cap-and-trade system for global warming pollution today in Oregon (see the NYT article). While the cuts he proposes are weaker than those many scientists say are necessary to avoid major catastrophes from global warming, it underscores one of the big reasons that I am confident that we can pass a good global warming bill in the next congress. Regardless of whether he, Obama, or Clinton win on November 4, the executive for the next 4 years will be a public supporter of a mandatory global warming pollution cap, making a veto much less likely (even for a bill stronger than that proposed by McCain).

The challenge will be less about getting any global warming bill passed (that much is almost guaranteed), and much more about making sure the bill that does pass is strong enough to match modern science in terms of the speed and magnitude of cuts. Other concerns include avoiding loopholes, leaving out big pay-offs to losing industries like coal (such as major funding for CO2 sequestration), and making sure we make polluters pay for the pollution allowances, rather than giving them away for free (which would reward those who are polluting the most).

The presidential and congressional elections going on right now across the country are setting the stage for the fight that will go down in the next year or two over national global warming policy. As support for a mandatory cap continues to build momentum, more and more of the opposition will shift their strategies from attempting to discredit global warming to cutting their losses by settling early for a weak bill intended to stall stronger action. It will be fascinating to see the nuanced messaging that comes from all sides on this issue. No word is accidental!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Investment Firms Want Price for Carbon

This is great! Knowing that the tide is turning, a growing number of investment firms want an explicit financial price tag for global warming pollution to make planning easier. How far have we come in the last 5 years that they're now asking for regulation!

Here's a piece of the Denver Post article from yesterday:

Banks, investment firms, corporations and utilities have begun to price out carbon emissions at $20 per ton. Bank of America, the nation's second-largest bank, is the latest addition to this list. In a February speech, CEO Ken Lewis stated, "We need a stable and predictable regulatory environment with a bias toward clean energy and the green economy. When innovators and financial backers are confident of government support, risk calculations change and good things happen."

To help realize that stable market, he announced the bank's decision to price global warming pollution at $20 to $40 per ton in assessing risks for lending.

This announcement follows an earlier call to action by more than 60 leading investors, asset managers and companies with assets totaling $4 trillion. This group, which includes ALCOA, Sun Microsystems, and Dupont, called on the federal government to tackle global warming and included a call for pricing of global warming pollution.