look out, here comes the flood

One of the many ironies in the debate over global warming is that the chickens have already come home to roost but few have noticed, except climate scientists of course, but then it’s clear that almost no one is listening to them anyway.

The epic and record-breaking Nashville flood in the U.S. this past spring is only one of the most recent, yet virtually invisible examples of climate change hitting home. “But wait,” I can already hear you saying.  “You can’t connect any one extreme weather event to climate change.”   That line is a well-worn argument, a blunt weapon that skeptics have used to bully climate advocates for years, ever since Katrina.  It’s also wrong.

The record-breaking “once in a thousand years” precipitation that drove the Nashville flood is part of the long-term trend of increasing heavy precipitation events in the Southeastern United States that has been documented and firmly attributed to climate change.  Maybe you can’t say this single event was caused by climate change, but you sure can say it fits the trend.  It’s also an example of the kind of flooding science tells us that we will see even more frequently in the future if global warming goes unchecked.  However, (and here’s the silver lining) it’s also the kind of poster-child event that could help get America to finally wake up and smell the coffee.

It’s clear the current political logic in the U.S. (and elsewhere) must be changed in order to secure the scale of change required to avoid a planetary train wreck. It’s no short-term task, to be sure, which is a scary prospect given that science also tells us that global emissions absolutely must peak in the next few years and then rapidly decline.

An important step in that direction will be to put a face on climate change, to help create that “BP moment” for global warming.  One of the tools needed for that task is a global database of climate change impact reports: the science reports but also the newspaper stories, photos, and eyewitness accounts that make the event come alive.

The major challenge in mounting such an initiative is finding, tagging and collecting all the reports.  However, social media may provide the answer.  Check out www.ClimateSignals.org, a global database of climate change impact reports set-up [by yours truly] to be crowd sourced through social bookmarking.  Anyone in the world affiliated with the project can submit a climate change impact report simply by bookmarking it from their browser.

The site is in beta mode at the moment.  But testers are welcome.


the heat on climate negotiators

As delegates negotiate here in Bonn, India is suffering through a record heat wave pushing thermometers towards 125° and setting new temperature records – a hallmark of climate change. Hundreds have died, a tragic reminder that adaptation has its limits. Pakistan, too, has lost lives to the heat wave gripping South Asia.

Other countries are also suffering this week through events that make for a grim fit with the trend of ever more extreme weather driven by global warming. Tropical storm Agatha has ravaged Central America, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands and taking over a hundred lives in epic flooding driven by record heavy rains, another classic fingerprint of global warming which draws more moisture into storms. The mounting death toll has made that storm one of the top ten deadliest Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones on record. In Alaska, temperature records are tumbling and wildfires are raging in an unprecedented early start to the 2010 Alaskan fire season that has already witnessed 193 fires and emptied every smokejumper base in the state. Again, the change in timing and intensity of the fire season speaks to the changing climate.

With negotiators now staring at each other over the tables in Bonn, six months removed from Copenhagen, the question of the day is whether they have a political mandate from their home capitols to get a move on, or whether we will witness two weeks of rhetoric and no action. The climate has already delivered its mandate, but will politics trump science?


be careful what you wish for

A new poll out today on health care reform illustrates the blow-back from years of anti-government framing, by both conservatives and progressives.

In measuring public opinion about the bill to overhaul health care, Associated Press-GfK found that public attitudes turned sharply negative AFTER the bill was signed into law.

Clues to explain this unusual movement are to be found in the details buried deeper in the poll results.

Despite the clear positive impact the legislation will have on consumers’ pocketbooks, AP/GfK reports that “the public doesn’t seem to be buying it….Fifty-seven percent said they expect to pay more for their own health care, contrasted with 7 percent who expect to pay less. And 47 percent said they expect their own medical care to get worse, compared with 14 percent looking forward to an improvement.”

These results reflect the fact that most folks now expect to be worse off when government programs expand, when government takes action.  And this mind-set is so strong that people will remake facts to fit their opinion, as illustrated with health care reform.

While directly criticizing the role of government is a frequent theme of conservative talking heads, progressive advocates often repeat and reinforce that theme with poorly constructed criticism of government decisions.  Rather than criticize particular decision-makers or the special interests who influence them, progressives often just broadly name and blame the “federal government”, feeding into the notion that government is a bad thing, an independent actor, rather than the expression of public will and community responsibility.

And the chickens have come home to roost.


reframing the debate on climate science

The international consensus on global warming has seemingly experienced a spectacular slow-motion train wreck over the last few months, with “climategate” reports piling up in public debate like derailing rail cars filmed in freeze frame.  The fascination for on-lookers, however, is that the science itself is largely blameless.   Instead, the pile-up stands as a case study in how not to wage a political battle.  And make no mistake; the attacks on climate science are pure politics.  We have seen attacks on science before, just pick your favorite example: smoking, toxic pollution, seat belts, etc.  However, until there is a fundamental reframing of the climate science debate, one that illuminates the politics, this round of attacks will continue to enjoy success.

Before focusing on how to reframe the debate on climate science, it’s fair to ask whether it’s worth the effort. In the wake of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC report on climate change three years ago, with climate science seemingly well established, advocates for climate protection focused their attention and rhetoric on the power of clean technology to fuel economic growth and create green jobs.   This strategy was driven in part by the sober realization that abstract science is very limited when it comes to reaching and mobilizing mainstream audiences in the U.S.  Fancy power point charts describing a threat arriving 100 years in the future just won’t cut it when your job is on the line right now and rent is due next week.

With the IPCC report well publicized, the champions of climate science moved onto other fronts, leaving climate scientists to hold down the fort. However, this approach ignored a basic principal of conflict – victories must be defended.  Not surprisingly, the opponents of climate protection took advantage and mobilized to attack the science.  They understood full well that, while the science is insufficient by itself to mobilize public will, it does provide the foundation for building the moral outrage than can and does move Americans.  Poll after poll has found that highlighting the threat global warming poses to our children’s future is one of the few compelling arguments that gain traction with mainstream audiences.  But that threat is meaningless if the science is not believed.

At the same time, the scale and pace of change required to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be summoned simply by highlighting the benefits of investing in clean energy.  The benefits from changing over to a low carbon society are too diffuse, and the few big winners are yet to be known.  Meanwhile the losers know exactly who they are and understand that they stand to lose, and they have the deep pockets to fight long and hard.  Choosing between highlighting the benefits of change or focusing on the danger of inaction is a bad strategy.  Both benefits and risks must be illuminated.

Science is the question (and it shouldn’t be)

Currently media coverage of climate science is framed such that it defines the fundamental question as an issue of science, not politics. In this setting, the more the science is debated, the more the science is defined as debatable.  There is simply no way to “prove” the science in a sound bite or a new story.  Debating the science in the news is a no-win proposition that perpetuates public doubt.

There are four dimensions to the frame of every issue.  And there is an opportunity to recast every dimension of climate science debate.

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers.  And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science.  While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate.  Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science.  If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don’t make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science.  They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Message

When debate becomes poisoned and opponents are engaged in distortion and deceit, it becomes critically necessary to call out the politics and highlight the consequences of arguing in bad faith.

Climate advocates should document and highlight the funding and industry ties for the current wave of climate deniers.  While the new generation of critics is often driven by partisan politics as much as by direct industry interests, their partisanship is fair game for reprove, particularly when it comes at the expense of our nation.

Advocates for climate protection need to go on the offensive.  They need to go beyond saying what the attacks don’t do (“they don’t undermine the science”) and spell out what the attacks do achieve: costly and dangerous delay.

Calling out the politics is a way to bridge the debate, to move away from debating climate science to highlighting the impacts of climate change as well as the opportunity to invest in a clean energy economy, an opportunity jeopardized by the delaying and stonewalling tactics of climate deniers.

The Audience

The audience forms the third dimension of a news frame.  Tell the same story to a different audience and you can end up with a different story.  In the context of the climate science debate, addressing the ultra-conservative audiences served up by Fox News is a low priority.   The focus should be on independent audiences in key states. At the same time, it is important not to ignore liberal bloggers simply because reaching out to them is seen as preaching to the choir.  That choir makes up the much talked about echo chamber, and if you don’t give the choir a songbook, it doesn’t know what to sing.

The Setting

It’s critically important to do more than defend the IPCC.  Debating 1,000 page science reports is not a compelling setting, and the rehabilitation of the IPCC brand will not happen overnight, despite the fact that the damage was done by erroneous attacks.

A better setting for talking about climate science is a real time impact of climate change, be it a record heat wave or record heavy rains followed by heavy flooding.   There is no denying what your eyes can see.  Last fall’s record setting flood in Atlanta was a textbook example of the kind of impact that should be highlighted. Only months earlier, NOOA had released a consensus science report documenting the trend of increased heavy precipitation during the fall months in the southeastern United States.  NOAA identified climate change as driving the trend and predicted more of the same for the future.

Some have argued that focusing on current weather can be tricky.  However, advocates were forced to do just that when opponents focused on the recent snowstorms as “proof” that global warming was oversold. Advocates were successful in pushing back on climate change deniers in that instance, and the same effort should be applied to upcoming heat waves, droughts and flooding, events that fit the pattern of increasing extreme events that scientists have clearly documented and predicted will only increase as the impacts of climate change intensify,

Another useful setting can be the courtroom where the plaintiffs are real-life people who’ve suffered real losses from climate change.  In this setting the question is not whether or not the science is solid, but whether the fossils fuel industry should be held legally liable for the billions of tons of carbon pollution it has dumped into the atmosphere.

Other useful story lines could highlight different governments, companies, and stakeholders such as water managers who are already making decisions and taking action based on what the science is dictating, reinforcing the notion that the science is settled–and urgent– with dramatic consequences for their business and communities.

Fending off the attack on climate science does require a concerted rapid-response defense simply to set the record straight.  But winning the debate requires going beyond defending the science. It requires asking different questions, such as who wins and who loses.


California: The Next Climate Battleground

With the climate train now limping out of Copenhagen, the question becomes what’s the next stop?  The next major international negotiation meeting isn’t scheduled until December in Cancún.  In the meantime, many advocates are looking to Washington DC and gearing up for the battle to move a climate bill through Congress.  But in 2010 the real play is even further west, in California where a strategic battle is brewing over clean energy and climate protection.

The cards have already been dealt for federal climate policy making this year, and even the most optimistic acknowledge we won’t be clearing the table on this go around (assuming that climate legislation even makes it to a vote, an outcome increasingly in doubt). Meanwhile, key cards for the next round of federal policy making are being laid out 3000 miles away.

Lasting change typically comes from the bottom up, and climate policy is no exception to the cliché. Rarely do federal policy makers move beyond the ambition of state governments and the grassroots movements that usually set the ceiling for the possible. The 2006 victory to enact California’s AB-32 climate law helped set the bar and paved the way for the current crop of federal proposals, and the outcome of several key battles in California in 2010 will likely define where those proposals are able to go.

This same bottom-up political logic ruled the day in Copenhagen.  By the time the December negotiations had rolled around the die was already cast.  Weak pledges from countries going into the negotiations ensured a weak deal coming out.  And the likely logic of the next round of negotiations is that without a strong U.S. policy there will be no strong international treaty.

How can we dramatically strengthen U.S national climate policy?  One critical battleground this year lies in California, where there is an opportunity to establish climate policy as an important driver of economic growth – currently a weak spot in the federal policy debate.  There are three strategic battles brewing in the state, each with the potential to define the course of federal politics.

Delaying Clean Energy

This spring and summer California officials will hold a series of public meetings to hammer out the rules for California’s climate program, enacted by the groundbreaking AB32 bill. A critically important battle is shaping up over the rules limiting the use of offsets (a controversial pollution trading practice), and the California limits are likely to help set the bar for the federal standard.    The offset provisions currently in federal legislation have the potential to postpone domestic pollution reductions another 20 years (by allowing polluters to substitute in reductions made overseas), delaying much needed domestic investment in low carbon and clean energy technologies.   The size of the federal offset provisions are creating a problem so severe that many advocates have begun to question the value of the federal bill. The battle in California will help set the national standard in the U.S., and a strong outcome would help plug the loopholes in federal legislation.

Killing Public Power

The June ballot in California will host Prop. 16, the second important showdown between climate advocates and the powers-that-be, in this case California’s largest power utility, PG&E, which backed a successful signature gathering campaign to qualify the ballot initiative that would “limit the ability of California cities to go into the public power business…[and] force local governments that want to compete with PG&E to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters first.”  The measure is opposed by cities that want more clean energy for their residents than PG&E has been willing to deliver.  Here, too, with cities taking action, the bottom up approach has the power to set an important trend.  And it’s a threat that PG&E is taking seriously, spending nearly $4 million to get the initiative on the ballot.

Counter-attack on Climate

But the stakes will be even higher for climate advocates come November in the race for California governor, an election battle that will polls say will pit Republican Meg Whitman against Democrat Jerry Brown.  Whitman has made the fight against climate legislation a cornerstone of her campaign, calling AB32 a jobs-killer and pledging to enact a moratorium in her very first day on the job as governor.  A victory for Whitman will embolden the opponents of federal climate legislation, providing them with a clear game plan for torpedoing climate policy, and would put a dagger into the hearts of those who tout the economic benefits of clean energy and climate protection.   Recently opponents of AB32 have launched a signature gathering campaign to qualify an initiative for the state ballot that would suspend the initiative until unemployment falls below 6% for a full year – an obvious attempt to link unemployment and climate protection.

Alternatively, a defeat for Whitman due at least in part because of her position on climate and clean energy would be a major victory for climate advocates, highlighting in no uncertain terms that there are political consequences for opposing climate legislation.  The key to tripping up Whitman and others like her lie in the fact that her ideological assault on climate would kill California innovation in favor of the status quo. She is championing the economic interests of a narrow set of corporate interests (e.g. the fossil fuel industry), rather than the innovation companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California who believe that AB32 will drive their business model of providing low carbon goods and energy services.

The political challenges we are seeing in Copenhagen, in Washington and other national capitals all beg the same question:  which country will overcome the status quo voices of their fossil fuel industry and move forward on climate protection and sustained economic growth driven by a modern low carbon economy? For the U.S. in 2010, a critical piece of the answer will be found in California.


This piece co-authored by Gary Cook, the former director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, and a climate and energy policy consultant, also based in California.


What “17%” Means

With climate proposals finally landing on the table from the U.S., China, Russia and elsewhere it’s time to figure out how it all adds up. And the answer is that it doesn’t come to much.

The unambitious U.S. proposal (a cut of 4% from 1990 levels or 17% from 2005) seems to have helped to set the bar pretty low for effort all around.  As a result, we are faced with a very hot future.

To understands what this sort of half-hearted ambition means, take a look at Chicago which by mid-century will suffer through a killer heat wave every year, heat waves like the ’95 heatwave that killed hundreds. By the end of the century, Obama’s hometown will go through THREE such heat waves every year. This is all according to the consensus science report issued by the Obama administration back in June (a report, interestingly enough, that was commissioned by the Bush administration and conducted by scientists picked by the Bush crew).

To connect the dots yourself and figure out what the impacts will be in your home town (if you happen to live in the U.S), first go to the website put together by the scientists at ClimateInteractive, which offers a tracking tool that calculates the global CO2e emissions implied by the “confirmed proposals,” and from there calculates how much CO2e pollution will have accumulated in the atmosphere by 2100 [yes, this stuff accumulates, that’s why we can’t wait and fix the problem later – by then it’s too late].

Once you have those numbers in hand, skip over to the impact predictions website put together by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  There are several tabs to check out.  Most of the local impacts are detailed in a regional breakdown.  Use the accumulated emissions number to figure out which scenario we’re putting ourselves in, and then look at the corresponding impacts that scenario will deliver. Additional impacts are detailed in sectoral summaries (like agriculture and transportation) and are also offered as highlights in the national overview section.  It’s a grim picture, but if you’re interested in knowing how the decisions made in Copenhagen this month will impact your kids’ future, it’s worth the visit.  And, to be sure, the report details what the impacts of lower pollution look like, too.


A Modest Proposal (for the rest of the world)

At this morning’s White House press gaggle, Obama’s climate czar, Carol Browner, announced “the President is prepared to put on the table a U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020,” which roughly translates into a cut of 4% below the emission levels of 1990  (the year traditionally used for comparing the efforts of different countries).

A lot of people are going to be discouraged by this 4% number, which falls woefully short of the 40% cut that science says is needed to avoid dangerous climate change (though Atlanta’s flood victims from this fall might say it’s already too late for that, having suffered through unprecedented fall rains exactly three months after NOAA released a consensus climate science report predicting same).

Likewise, some countries waiting to hear the opening bid from the United States (e.g. China) might now be tempted to low-ball their own ambitions.  But there’s an interesting twist to the offering from the United States, one that might be skillfully exploited by countries seeking to build economic advantage over the United States.  Accordingly, and in the long literary tradition of the modest proposal, I make note of the following opportunity for China and Europe.

While Obama’s goal for 2020 falls way short of what’s needed, not to worry, says Browner, we’ll make up for it down the road, by steeply reducing emissions in the future:

“In light of the President’s goal to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050, the expected pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2025, and a 42 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2030. Both the Senate and the House bills include interim measurements.  They’re slightly different, but they’re fairly similar.”

Back in July the Director of the Congressional Budget Office published this graph in his blog showing how emissions (in covered sectors) would rise until 2017 and then dive, crash dive really, under the House bill.

Estimated U.S. Emissions under the House-passed Bill

With Europe offering to reduce emissions 30% below 1990 levels by 2020,  its hard to ignore how unfair a 4% offering looks from the United States.  But if Obama is willing to lock the U.S. into a crash dive program, Europe and China might take a second look.   By starting on the task of re-tooling their economies now (a task that both the EU and China have actually already started), they will own economic advantage over the U.S. for decades.  In contrast, rather than preparing for a smart, efficient transfer over to clean energy, the U.S. will have to go on a crash diet, shedding economic output for the sake of shedding carbon pollution [and even with that, still pay other countries to make some of our reductions for us, through the use of so-called “offsets” – a controversial practice that some say deliver few real reductions].

The irony behind the U.S. numbers goes even further, however.  The numbers are only as anemic as they are to appease conservatives in the U.S. Senate who claim to be watching out for the U.S. economy, arguing that moving quickly to curb carbon pollution will cripple the U.S. economy.   However, as the graph above illustrates, delay threatens to undermine prosperity in our country for decades.  The International Energy Administration has estimated that every year of global delay will cost the global economy $500 billion.  The only winners from delay are those who profit from pollution – the fossil fuel industry.

July 2018
« Jun