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Archive for August, 2008

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said on a “Politics of Green” panel discussion this week in Denver that climate policy aimed at increasing energy bills is critically flawed:

I actually think if we deal with global warming in a way which raises people’s energy bills, we will have blown it.

You can watch it here.

Pope’s comment was a major shift away from the traditional approach on climate legislation taken by environmentalists. For years, the dominant climate strategy has been to educate Americans on the climate crisis, persuade the public to accept higher fossil fuel prices, and pass federal legislation to set a mandatory cap on carbon and allow the price to rise as high as necessary to achieve deep emissions reductions.

Pope’s comment represents a larger awakening among environmentalists to the realities of energy and global warming politics. The events of this summer – including the third failure of federal cap and trade legislation, eroding support in Congress, rapidly escalating oil prices, and a political beat-down of Democrats by Republicans on new oil drilling – have served as a watershed for the climate movement. In a nutshell, one thing above all else has become clear: climate policy aimed at significantly increasing energy costs will fail. Period.

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“As the nation searches for new sources of energy, tribes are at a crossroads,” Climate Wire reported today. “They hold 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves and have an abundant supply of oil and natural gas, but also face a growing climate change movement determined to stop development of fossil fuels and spur renewable energy.”

Last week, the Crow Nation announced plans to build a coal-to-liquids plant in Montana that may provide fuel for the Air Force. That followed news of a potential coal-fired power plant on Navajo Nation land in New Mexico.

Now, as many as six coal projects, including some that would produce liquid fuel, are “under consideration” in Montana either on reservations or in nearby locations that could make use of tribal labor and resources, according to Chantel McCormick, an energy development officer for the state. Her remarks echoed a Bush administration official who said Tuesday that several tribes had “expressed interest” recently in building plants that convert coal to diesel or jet fuel.

“With an upswing in energy prices, tribes are looking at their resources more and hearing from industry wanting to work on reservation land,” said Robert Middleton, director of the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development at the Interior Department.”

Groups like Energy Action Coalition have long argued (EAC statement of environmental justice principles) that tribes are some of the greatest victims to climate change, oil drilling, and coal mining. As the article reports:

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Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog

For the past two weeks, Democrats have been losing the energy debate — badly. Poll after poll showed Democrats losing major ground in the fight over new oil drilling, and some declared that energy could be a turning point in the run-up to November. At the Breakthrough Institute, we ran a series of responses: here, here, here, and here.

But a “New Energy Reform Act” proposal from the “Gang of 10” — a group of five Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate — is starting to gain serious traction and could upset the debate.

The proposal has three basic components: 1) Tens of billions of dollars in federal investments to support the transition to advanced non-petroleum fuels, vehicles, and infrastructure; 2) Extension of renewable energy tax credits and incentives; and 3) Expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic states, while preserving ANWR and the West Coast.

The proposal represents a bi-partisan approach that could sweep aside Republican dominance of the energy debate, gain significant bi-partisan support after the August recess (likely to rally more support than the insistent and inflexible “Drill Here, Drill Now” sloganeering), and secure passage through Congress. It combines limited offshore drilling with major investments in new advanced alternative vehicle technology and the critical extension of renewable energy tax credits — and its $84 billion in funding would come from repealing tax breaks on oil and gas companies and increasing their licensing fees.

The reactions so far have indicated that most see this as a saving grace for Democrats and climate advocates. Here’s a short roundup:

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Last week, the Center for a New American Security staged a “war game” on climate change. They gathered together climate scientists and experts in security, environmental policy from around the world, and assigned them to one of four teams — the United States, the European Union, China, and India. Each team was charged with negotiating the best global response to climate change for their team.

The game kicked-off with a fictitious news briefing about the state of the world in 2015, the year the talks were supposed to take place. But despite a 2012 follow up to the Kyoto Protoco requiring deep emissions cuts by mid-century, the outlook wasn’t good: droughts, heavy rains, floods, and other extreme weather events were on the rise, and there was a major global refugee problem. What’s more, “very few” signatories to the 2012 agreement were on track to meeting their emissions reductions targets.

After days of dramatic negotiating, and arguments so impassioned that participants had to remind themselves that it was just a game, it ended with…more emissions reductions agreements. The U.S. and the E.U. agreed to 30 percent reductions by 2025, India agreed to some limits with restrictions, and China agreed to nothing.

Everyone seemed to agree that the results of the talks were underwhelming, and fell short of the transformative global agreement many had been hoping for. It seems pretty silly to end up with a solution of emissions reductions targets when the talks started from a point of failing targets. The line of thinking here is that the world simply needs to make more ambitious reduction goals and work harder to meet them, even though no country has demonstrated that it can actually meet these goals.

The organizers said that the exercise wasn’t necessarily intended to produce a role-model agreement, but to explore “new solutions for dealing with climate change.” But with all this talk of targets and timetables, where were the new solutions? U.N. Secretary General John Podesta proposed the creation of a new international fund for clean technology, but his idea and others were left on the table.

Tellingly, after failing to meet its real world targets under Kyoto, E.U. team members were pushing for something more tangible than aspirational targets. Via Nature‘s liveblogging:

If the purpose of a war game is to reveal and explore alternate futures, then perhaps we have a winner here. Indeed, the year is 2015 and we now find ourselves in a world in which the United States is pushing for strong binding emissions limits on the rest of the world. By contrast, Europe appears to be pushing a more vague approach that focuses on tools, or “instruments,” including a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, that might be necessary if the existing (largely aspirational) targets are to be met.

Check out the response from the US team: “Do you have any specific targets?”

“Deciding targets without providing the instruments doesn’t do us a lot of service,” countered European delegate Reinhard Buetikofer (leader of the German Green Party). “We felt that since we have targets now, the real challenge is to provide the instruments.”

I could only scratch my head. Have the United States and Europe traded places politically in 2015? I asked UN Secretary General John Podesta (again, of Bill Clinton/Center for American Progress fame) if it was my imagination. He laughed. “The EU may have learned from bitter experience that when they take on these commitments, they are out in front of the parade and nobody is following.”

Buetikofer was a bit more cautious in his assessment of the situation. He pointed out that Europe, in 2015, is closer to meeting its targets than anybody else, and he questioned the value of new targets given the ongoing failure to meet previous targets.

The Nature blogger is lightly critical of the E.U. team, pointing out the apparent irony in its role reversal with the real-world United States’ reluctance to accept binding emissions targets. The blogger seems disdainful of Buetikofer for his feeble suggestion that the world needs better “tools” to confront the climate crisis, rather than stricter targets. But with Kyoto ratifying nations in the real world already failing to meet their targets, future negotiators would do well to take seriously Kyoto’s disillusioned former champions.

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There’s a simple relationship between energy and civilization: more energy means more activity, growth, and prosperity. The defining challenge of our era is to think responsibly about how we use energy, as we strive to meet the demands of developing nations, struggle with a failing economy, and mitigate climate change.

Part of the problem is that we’ve taken energy for granted. Energy fuels everything we do. But we’ve outgrown our youthful years of abundant oil, as a nation and as a planet. Richard Smalley estimated in 2004 that if the world population were to stabilize at 10 billion people, they would demand 60 terawatts of energy in order to live prosperous, secure lives—more than four times what we currently use. At the same time, the oil that drove America’s progress is becoming less and less viable as an energy source. It is becoming increasingly clear that the most sophisticated and effective option is not to simply throw more energy, any energy, at the problem(s). So what now?
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Disturbing news today from Andy Revkin: budget cuts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have driven officials there to eliminate the Center for Capacity Building. Until its untimely demise, the CCB studied the societal risks and impacts of climate change, and explored how to best bolster poor countries’ resilience in the face of rapidly changing (and often worsening) weather.

Revkin’s commenters point out that NCAR’s budget has failed to keep pace with inflation, forcing some tough choices there, and that the CCB’s work was never fully at home in an institution devoted more to computer simulations and other “hard science” pursuits. Nonetheless, a lot of people are seriously unnerved by the move – including Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. – and I’d say I’m one of them. Here’s why. (more…)

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If bold national and global action from our traditional governing institutions prove insufficient in tackling the issues we face in the 21st century, let’s not forget the power we have ourselves.

Recently I seem to have lost my usually uncanny ability as a perpetual optimist. The state of the world, it seems, is sometimes just too much to handle, especially when we face problems at such systemic—ecological, political and social—levels.

Two op-eds in the New York Times last week gave a startling, if not downright pessimistic, reminder about the state of our nation and our world.

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