November 21

Talking About The Weather Just Got More Interesting

[My first column for TIME Ideas.]

Experts confirm what Americans suspected: extreme storms, droughts and floods are made worse by climate change.

Scientific progress is—and must be—a painstaking journey. That’s why regular people may feel we know something in our bones before the experts are ready to make a pronouncement about it.

That’s how it was last Friday, when 220 scientists and disaster experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first definitive reporton the links between global climate change and extreme weather events. Their basic warning — climate change is making the weather wilder and more dangerous, so get ready — simply confirmed what most Americans already sensed.
While the scientists were calibrating their degrees of confidence (90% to 100% probability that heat waves will get worse, 66% to 100% probability that heavy precipitation will get worse), most of us were watching extreme weather get right up in our grill. More than twice as many Major League Baseball games were played in 95-plus degree heat this season as last year—the Texas Rangers played 27 of them in 100-plus degree heat. In South Florida, storm surges swamped coastal cities. Epic floods on the Mississippi, historic drought and wildfire in Texas, the ravages of Hurricane Irene — all of it has brought home the human toll as well as the economic costs of climate change in a way that no scholarly report ever could. According to a November 2011 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, a majority of Americans now believe global warming intensified these record-setting events.

The familiar caveat that no single weather event can be blamed directly on climate change is giving way to a new consensus: The weather system combines the impact of climate change with the effects of natural variability the way Barry Bonds used to combine the impact of steroids with his own natural talent. “Records are not just broken, they are smashed,” said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in an interview with the New York Times. “The environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities… It is as clear a warning as we are going to get about prospects for the future.”
There is, of course, a vocal minority that disputes the connection between greenhouse gas emissions, rising global temperatures, and extreme weather. But research by ecoAmerica and Yale tells us there is a larger group that remains unsure about the issue: call it the uncertain center. The ecoAmerica study indicates that important segments of the uncertain center—people who work or play outdoors and live close to the land, people whose livelihood is tied to the security of their communities — are beginning to think in new ways because of the extreme weather. These people have been on the receiving end of some of the ten separate billion-dollar-plus disasters that have hit the U.S. so far this year. (The IPCC puts the global cost of weather- and climate-related disasters at up to $200 billion per year.) As a utility worker in southern Indiana told me last summer, “something is going on around here with the weather. We all know it.”

Climate trends don’t march in lockstep, of course, and it is possible that 2011’s wild weather could give way to a period of relative calm that might lead people to stop thinking about the issue for a while. But the long-term trend is what matters. The 1980s was the hottest decade on record until the 1990s came along; the ’90s handed its crown to the 2000s, and the current decade is off to an even hotter start. As the IPCC tells us, hotter, wilder and more destructive is very likely here to stay.

This is not a time for climate hawks to say I told you so. Nobody wants to hear that, even if a prominent (and climate skeptical) Berkeley physicist named Richard Muller recently validated the data underpinning climate science. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, funded in part by the (extremely climate skeptical) Charles G. Koch Foundation, reviewed “more than 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations around the world.” As Mueller wrote in a Wall Street JournalEurope op-ed, the climate scientists he’d set out to debunk “had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. … Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

It’s a time for other voices to join a national conversation about security and resilience — no shouting, no name-calling, just an honest discussion that concedes we don’t have all the answers but suggests we do know more than enough to take action. People in the uncertain center need to hear from their peers — from firefighters and rescue teams and highway crews that have done heroic work coping with extreme weather events; from insurance agents paying out disaster claims, small businesses coping with power outages, civic leaders of all kinds — men and women who understand now, as never before, that the cost of climate inaction is getting too high to bear.

October 18

If only the White House had the passion of Sen. Whitehouse…

On Thursday, Oct. 13, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivered the following remarkable speech on the failure of the U.S. Senate to act on global warming pollution: “We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history.”

Mr. President, I am here to speak about what is currently an unpopular topic in this town. It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change.

This is a peculiar condition of Washington. If you go out into, say, our military and intelligence communities, they understand and are planning for the effects of carbon pollution on climate change. They see it as a national security risk. If you go out into our nonpolluting business and financial communities, they see this as a real and important problem. And, of course, it goes without saying our scientific community is all over this concern. But as I said, Washington is a peculiar place, and here it is getting very little traction.

Here in Washington we feel the dark hand of the polluters tapping so many shoulders. And where there is power and money behind that dark hand, therefore, a lot of attention is paid to that little tap on the shoulder. What we overlook is that nature – God’s Earth – is also tapping us all on the shoulder, with messages we ignore at our peril. We ignore the messages of nature–of God’s Earth–and we ignore the laws of nature – of God’s Earth – at our very grave peril.

There is a wave of very justifiable economic frustration that has swept through our Capitol. The problem is that some of the special interests–the polluters–have insinuated themselves into that wave, sort of like parasites that creep into the body of a host animal, and from there they are working terrible mischief. They are propagating two big lies. One is that environmental regulations are a burden to the economy and we need to lift those burdens to spur our economic recovery. The second is the jury is still out on climate changes caused by carbon pollution, so we don’t need to worry about it or even take precautions. Both are, frankly, outright false.

Environmental regulation is well established to be good for the economy. It may add costs to you if you are a polluter, but polluters usually exaggerate about that.

For instance, before the 1990 acid rain rules went into effect, Peabody Coal estimated that compliance would cost $3.9 billion. The Edison Electric Institute chimed in and estimated that compliance would cost $4 to $5 billion. Well, in fact, the Energy Information Administration calculated the program actually cost $836 million, about one-sixth of the Edison Electric Institute estimate.

When polluters were required to phase out the chemicals they were emitting that were literally burning a hole through our Earth’s atmosphere, they warned that it would create “severe economic and social disruption” due to “shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets, office buildings, hotels, and hospitals.” Well, in fact, the phaseout happened 4 years to 6 years faster than predicted; it cost 30 percent less than predicted; and the American refrigeration industry innovated and created new export markets for its environmentally friendly products.

Anyway, the real point is we are not just in this Chamber to represent the polluters. We are supposed to be here to represent all Americans, and Americans benefit from environmental regulation big time.

Over the lifetime of the Clean Air Act, for instance, for every $1 it costs to add pollution controls, Americans have received about $30 in health and other benefits. By the way, installing those pollution controls created jobs because they went to manufacturers to build the controls and to Americans to install them. But setting that aside, a 30-to-1 benefit ratio to keep our air clean sounds like a mighty wise investment to me. That 30-to-1 ratio doesn’t even count the intangible benefits–intangible but very real benefits–of clear air and clean water, the benefits of the heart and the soul, the benefits to a grandfather of taking his granddaughter to the fishing hole and still finding fish there or of the city kid being able to go to a beach and have it clean enough to swim there or the benefit to a mom who is spared the burden of worry, of sitting next to her asthmatic baby on the emergency room albuterol inhaler waiting for his infant lungs to clear.

Well, unfortunately, polluters rule in certain circles in Washington, and they emit propaganda as well as pollution, and they have been emitting too much of both lately.

Their other big lie the jury is still out on is whether human-made carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change and oceanic change. Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change. Many of us in Congress received a letter from those institutions in October 2009. Let me quote from that letter.

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.

Let me repeat that last quote.

Contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.

This letter was signed by the heads of the following organizations: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Statistical Association, the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, the Botanical Society of America, the Crop Science Society of America, the Ecological Society of America, the Natural Science Collections Alliance, the Organization of Biological Field Stations, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Soil Science Society of America, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

These are highly esteemed scientific organizations. They are the real deal. They don’t think the jury is still out. They recognize that, in fact, the verdict is in, and it is time to act.

More than 97 percent of the climate scientists most actively publishing accept that the verdict is actually in on carbon pollution causing climate and oceanic changes–97 percent. Think of that.

Imagine if your child were sick and the doctor said she needed treatment, and out of prudence you went and got a second opinion. Then you went around and you actually got 99 second opinions. When you were done, you found that 97 out of 100 expert doctors agreed your child was sick and needed treatment. Imagine further that of the three who disagreed, some took money from the insurance company that would have to pay for your child’s treatment. Imagine further that none of those three could say they were sure your child was OK, just that they weren’t sure what her illness was or that she needed treatment, that there was some doubt.

On those facts, name one decent father or mother who wouldn’t start treatment for their child. No decent parent would turn away from the considered judgment of 97 percent of 100 doctors just because they weren’t all absolutely certain.

How solid is the science behind this? Rock solid. The fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat from the Sun was discovered at the time of the Civil War. This is not new stuff. In 1863 the Irish scientist John Tyndall determined that carbon dioxide and water vapor trapped more heat in the atmosphere as their concentrations increased. A 1955 textbook, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” notes that nearly a century ago the scientist, John Tyndall, suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the Earth to cool, whereas a rise in carbon dioxide would make it warmer.

In the early 1900s, a century ago, it became clear that changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might account for significant increases and decreases in the Earth’s average annual temperatures and that carbon dioxide released from manmade sources, anthropogenic sources–primarily by the burning of coal–would contribute to those atmospheric changes. This is not new stuff. These are well-established scientific principles.

Let me look for a moment at the book I talked about, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” published in 1955–the year I was born, more than half a century ago–for the “Science for Every Man Series.” Let me read:

Although the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains at a concentration of 0.03 percent all over the world, the amount in the air has not always been the same. There have been periods in the world’s history when the air became charged with more carbon dioxide than it now carries. There have also been periods when the concentration has fallen unusually low. The effects of these changes have been profound. They are believed to have influenced the climate of the earth by controlling the amount of energy that is lost by the earth into space. Nearly a century ago, the British scientist John Tyndall suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the earth to cool whereas a rise in the carbon dioxide would make it warmer. With the help of its carbon dioxide, the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse that traps the heat of the sun. Radiations reaching the atmosphere as sunshine can penetrate to the surface of the earth. Here, they are absorbed, providing the world with warmth. But the earth itself radiating energy outwards in the form of long- wave heat rays. If these could penetrate the air as the sunshine does, they could carry off much of the heat provided by the sun. Carbon dioxide in the air helps to stop the escape of heat radiations. It acts like a blanket to keep the world warm. And the more carbon dioxide the air contains, the more efficiently does it smother the escape of the earth’s heat. Fluctuation in the carbon dioxide of the air has helped to bring about major climate changes experienced by the world in the past.

This is 1955. This is “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” out of the “Science for Every Man Series.” This is not something that was just invented.

Let’s look at the facts that we actually observe in our changing planet. Over the last 800,000 years – 8,000 centuries – until very recently the atmosphere has stayed within a bandwidth of between 170 parts per million and 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That is not theory, that is measurement. Scientists measure historic carbon dioxide concentrations by, for example, locating trapped bubbles in the ice of ancient glaciers. So we know, over time – and over long periods of time – what the range has been.

What else do we know? We know since the industrial revolution, we – humankind – have been burning carbon-rich fuels in measurable and ever- increasing amounts. We know we release up to 7 to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year. A gigaton, by the way, is 1 billion metric tons. So if you are going to release 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere, predictably that increases carbon concentration in our atmosphere. “Put more in and find more there” is not a complex scientific theory. It is not a difficult proposition. And 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere is a very big thing in the historical sweep.

So we now measure carbon concentrations climbing in the Earth’s atmosphere. Again, this is a measurement, not a theory. The present concentration exceeds 390 parts per million.

So 800,000 years and a bandwidth of 170 to 300 parts per million, and now we are over 390.

This increase has a trajectory. Plotting trajectories is nothing new either. It is something scientists, businesspeople, and our military service people do every day. The trajectory for our carbon pollution predicts that 688 parts per million will be in the atmosphere in the year 2095 and 1,097 parts per million in the year 2195. These are carbon concentrations not outside of the bounds of 800,000 years but outside of the bounds of millions of years. As Tyndall determined at the time of the Civil War, increasing carbon concentrations will absorb more of the Sun’s heat and raise global temperatures.

Let me end by reviewing the scale of the peril that we are facing if we fail to act. Over the last 800,000 years, as I said, it has been 170 to 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Since the start of the industrial revolution, that concentration is now up to 390 parts per million. If we continue on the trajectory that we find ourselves, our grandchildren will see carbon concentrations in the atmosphere top 700 parts per million by the end of the century, twice the bandwidth top that we have lived in for 8,000 centuries.

To put that in perspective, mankind has engaged in agriculture for about 10,000 years. It is not clear we had yet mastered fire 800,000 years ago. The entire development of human civilization has taken place in that 800,000 years, and within that 170 to 300 parts per million bandwidth. If we go back, we are back into geologic time.

In April of this year, a group of scientific experts came together at the University of Oxford to discuss the current state of our oceans. The workshop report stated:

Human actions have resulted in warming and acidification of the oceans and are now causing increasing hypoxia.

Acidification is obvious–the ocean is becoming more acid; hypoxia means low oxygen levels.

Studies of the Earth’s past indicate that these are the three symptoms . . . associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.

We experienced two mass ocean extinctions 55 and 251 million years ago. The rates of carbon entering the atmosphere in the lead-up to these extinctions are estimated to have been 2.2 and 1 to 2 gigatons of carbon per year respectively, over several thousand years. As the group of Oxford scientists noted:

Both these estimates are dwarfed in comparison to today’s emissions.

As I said earlier, those are 7 to 8 gigatons per year. The workshop participants concluded with this quote:

Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.

The laws of physics and the laws of chemistry and the laws of science, these are laws of nature. These are laws of God’s Earth. We can repeal some laws around here but we can’t repeal those. Senators are used to our opinions mattering a lot around here, but these laws are not affected by our opinions. These laws do not care who peddles influence, how many lobbyists you have or how big your corporate bankroll is. Those considerations, so important in this town, do not matter at all to the laws of nature.

As regards these laws of nature, because we can neither repeal nor influence them, we bear a duty, a duty of stewardship to see and respond to the facts that are before our faces according to nature’s laws. We bear a duty to shun the siren song of well-paying polluters. We bear a duty to make the right decisions for our children and grandchildren and for our God-given Earth.

Right now I must come before the Chamber and remind this body that we are failing in that duty. The men and women in this Chamber are indeed catastrophically failing in that duty. We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history–not this week, perhaps, and not next week. The spin doctors can see to that. But ultimately and assuredly, the harsh judgment that it is history’s power to inflict on wrong will fall upon us. The Supreme Being who gave us this Earth and its abundance created a world not just of abundance but of consequence and that Supreme Being gave us reason to allow us to plan for and foresee the various consequences that those laws of nature impose.

It is magical thinking to imagine that somehow we will be spared the plain and foreseeable consequences of our failure of duty. There is no wizard’s hat and wand with which to wish this away. These laws of nature are known; the Earth’s message to us is clear; our failure is blameworthy; its consequences are profound; and the costs will be very high.

September 29

How Inhofe Turns Balloon Animals into ‘News’

The professional deniers are at it again. Every chance they get, the people who are paid to spread doubt and confusion about climate change take some minor report or news event, fill it with hot air and twist it up like a balloon animal, then try to persuade everyone that it is alive and kicking—that it “proves” that the planet isn’t warming or human activities aren’t the big reason why.

This time, the professional deniers are seizing on a report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general.

In reality, the IG’s report upholds EPA’s efforts to address climate change, affirming that the agency followed the law when it determined that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

But Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who says he thinks global warming is a hoax, and his team of professional deniers have been trying to pretend that their latest balloon animal is living, breathing proof that the EPA process was faulty and the underlying science flawed. And some news organizations fell for it — again.

To make his claim, Inhofe had to ignore the crystal-clear opening sentence of the IG’s report, which concludes that EPA “met statutory requirements for rulemaking” when it issued its endangerment finding, the scientific basis for action under the Clean Air Act. The IG’s report takes issue with some bureaucratic minutiae—EPA procedures that have nothing to do with the validity of the agency’s conclusions. These procedures were created by the federal Office of Management and Budget, and OMB agrees with the way EPA followed them, not with the IG’s minor criticisms.

It’s one agency squabbling with another over which boxes got checked.

Here’s how my colleague Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, put it yesterday. “Let’s be clear on what this report does not do: it does not call into question any of the underlying science. And the report affirmed that EPA complied with the law when making the endangerment finding.”

EPA’s endangerment finding is based on assessments by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program–assessments that considered tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles and involved thousands of scientists.

Inhofe is peddling another balloon animal. No surprise there. But let’s pull back the curtain and see how a balloon animal gets treated like news.

Step One. It all starts when Inhofe himself demands that the IG look into the endangerment finding. “This evaluation was initiated based on a request from Senator James M. Inhofe,” the IG report says—and to carry it out, “the estimated direct labor and travel costs for this report are $297,385.” So Inhofe, a putative champion of small government and enemy of bureaucratic waste, triggered almost $300,000 in unnecessary spending for the report. That’s an expensive balloon.

Step Two. Inhofe breaks the IG’s embargo by putting out an overheated press release claiming that the report “calls the scientific integrity of EPA’s decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding.” In fact, it does nothing of the kind.

Step Three. Inhofe’s former communications director, Marc Morano, who runs a climate denier web site, trumpets the false charges, conservative outlets pick up the drum beat, and mainstream news organizations like The Washington Post and Politico quote Inhofe’s specious charges. Headlines announce that EPA “cut corners” and “needed more data before ruling.” Other journalists begin weighing in on the “wide-reaching political implications.”

Now, an IG report is news, no doubt about that. But reporters should know better than to believe that Inhofe’s balloon animal is real. Anyone who looks at it can tell it’s just a balloon. Can’t they?

August 18

My Rolling Stone interview, August 5 Issue

Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War, on Obama’s failure to cap carbon pollution.

What has Obama done to get climate legislation passed?

We’re just not seeing from the president what we need to see if he’s serious about passing a climate bill. When it comes to a cap on carbon pollution – the hardest and most important piece of the battle – they’ve ducked every opportunity to fight. The White House has taken what it calls a “stealth strategy.” They felt that, because of the recession, you’re better off not talking about the climate bill too much – you let Congress take care of the policy details.

So what’s wrong with that approach?

Two things. First is the notion that if the president isn’t talking about it, then opponents won’t talk about it either. In fact, as we know, they scream bloody murder at every turn. By keeping the president out of it, by not even dusting off his megaphone, you’re ceding the battleground to the other side. Second is the notion that the Senate can take care of the details. Left to its own devices, the Senate will pass some kind of feel-good measure that may improve things around the margins but won’t fundamentally tackle the real threat.

Can’t Harry Reid twist some arms and get it done?

Reid has been saying for a year that he can’t herd these cats. He is fighting for his political life in Nevada, so he can’t provide the adult supervision that’s needed. He’s made no bones about the fact that he needs help to get this done – he’s actually pleaded with the White House to step in.

Isn’t there anyone else who can rally the troops on this?

No. If the president is not the leader of this fight, then the climate action team is not going to win. The other players are necessary but not sufficient. Gore’s done an extraordinary amount to move this issue along, but he can’t take it where it needs to go single-handedly.

So is there any hope left for curbing climate pollution?

The only option that seems halfway viable at this point – one that actually includes a cap on carbon of any kind – is the idea of capping the utility sector. If we could get that done this year, that would be a great step. It’s woefully inadequate compared to what needs to be done, but it would be a significant first step.

A great, woefully inadequate step?

You need to take a step, because you need to shut up the Chicken Littles. You need to prove that we can constrain our carbon without destroying our economy. I want to go to Virginia this weekend to see my mom, but I won’t get there unless I start. The journey has to begin somewhere.

What would it take to change the game at this point?

We’re past the point where articulating principles is enough. If there’s any chance for a climate bill at this late date, we need Obama to say specifically what he’s for. He has to try to solve the policy obstacles, and then run the political operation needed to get the votes. It’s only going to get harder as we get closer to the midterm elections. If you don’t put down a marker and start organizing around that, you’ll never get there.


July 29

In Wreckage of Climate Bill, Some Clues for Moving Forward

Following the rocky path of climate legislation in the U.S. Congress these past years brought me back to the 1980s, and my time as a crime reporter in New York City. After a shooting in those days, a homicide detective named Marty Davin would go to the hospital and intercept the gunshot victim on a gurney outside the emergency room. If the victim was conscious, Davin would lean over and ask, “Who killed you?”

That usually got the victim’s attention, along with an I’m-not-dead-yet protest. Davin would reply, “You are going to die. You might as well tell me who did it.”

As I interviewed the sponsor of whichever emissions-reduction bill had just been gunned down, I often thought of Davin. The politicians and climate campaigners would assure me that they were still alive — passage of a carbon cap was inevitable, they’d say — and I’d remind myself that they had survived countless near-death experiences.

But what happened last week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would not even try to bring a compromise climate bill to the Senate floor, was not just another setback. 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. And the consensus approach to federal climate action — the idea that cap-and-trade was the most politically viable policy — may well be dead, too.

This is a time to take stock. The first question is whether this was a failure of policy; a failure of politics, message, and messenger; or both? Second, is there a Plan B around which the climate campaign should now unify? And third, what needs to be done to allow a better outcome when the next opportunity finally does appear?

No one who follows climate politics could have been very surprised by Reid’s move. The bigger shock was his decision to remove from the bill a mandate that utilities must generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. (Proponents hope to offer it as a floor amendment.) It was if the Senate was saying: Anything remotely effective, we’re not going to do.

When Reid pulled the plug, I thought back to a snowy afternoon in Copenhagen last December. Sitting with Al Gore in an empty hotel café, I asked him to contemplate this very moment. “If the United States doesn’t act,” he replied, “if the Senate defeats the legislation or waters it down to a point where it is not even worth having a bill, that is an event horizon beyond which it is difficult to see.”

He parsed the same issues then that climate campaigners are parsing now: “It may mean there is a fundamental flaw in the international political approach, but I’m not sure there is a good alternative. The reality is so dire that a new plan would have to emerge — but just now I can’t imagine what it would be.”

Gore had a point. When the goal is emissions reduction, there aren’t many alternatives: You’ve got to reduce emissions. The Plan B options now being offered by various advocates should be vigorously debated, but all of them seem vulnerable to the same polluted politics that killed the cap. Advocates of the carbon tax are ready to take a run at their goal, and Godspeed — but
it is hard to see how politicians who were terrified to support a cap (because opponents labeled it a tax) will suddenly become bold enough to support a carbon tax. Policy groups such as the Breakthrough Institute argue that instead of making dirty fuels more expensive, it’s time for intensive energy research and development to make clean fuels cheaper. That sounds reasonable, but without the revenue stream that a cap or tax would provide — and in an era of budget cutbacks — it is hard to see government supplying the massive, long-term funding their plan requires.

Is the cap so fundamentally flawed that it should be abandoned forever? I don’t think so. I believe it needs to be liberated from legislative bloat and rehabilitated as a modest first step: a tool for regulating power sector emissions, the job it performed so successfully in the 1990s, when America tamed acid rain. It’s worth remembering that while climate politics were bogging down, climate policy mechanisms were being improved. Clever wonks found ways to cushion consumers and high-carbon industries from the price impact of the cap, while preserving a price signal for generators. Trading restrictions were added to keep speculators out of the carbon game. Though the term cap-and-trade has been demonized, the cap itself isn’t broken.

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. During the three years I worked on The Climate War, a narrative of the campaign to pass a carbon cap, I came to realize I was writing a political thriller, a whodunit with multiple culprits. Let’s look for lessons by considering some of the culprits, starting with the most obvious.

1. The Professional Deniers. Gore and environmental leaders made a tactical error several years ago when they declared the science “settled” and refused to engage the forces of denial and delay. The basic science was indeed settled, but the resulting message vacuum was the perfect medium for those who sow doubt and confusion about global climate change. It shouldn’t be surprising that so many Americans remain skeptical about global warming. For 20 years, this loose network of PR pros, working for industry associations and anti-tax think tanks, has spread doubt about climate science and fear about climate economics, claiming that any attempt to cap CO2 would wreck the American economy. 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 the new jobs that are already being created by the renewable energy economy and show Americans precisely where they fit into it.

2. Senate Republicans. Most climate campaigners understand the folly of trying to remake the American energy system without bipartisan support. But 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.

There was a time — 2007 and 2008, to be precise — when some Republicans were moving away from deny-and-delay tactics. (In 2007, briefly, Newt Gingrich supported the carbon cap.) More recently, opposition to climate action has become a litmus test in the GOP. Arizona Republican John McCain, who sponsored the Senate’s first serious climate bills but now faces a primary challenge from the right, recently called a successor bill “a farce.” His mantle of Republican climate courage passed to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who took so much heat from his own party that he withdrew from the climate bill he helped write. Graham’s position has been incoherent since then, but he has signaled support for a cap on the power sector. That could be something to build on.

3. Senate Democrats. After Reid pulled the plug, Democrats were quick to blame Republicans for obstruction. But what about the obstructionists within the Democratic ranks? Harry Reid didn’t have the clout to force action on this issue because a dozen or more centrist Democrats — from states that either mine coal or produce much of their electricity from it — were dug in against it. 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 crucial thing is to get started.

4. The Green Group. At a meeting in February 2007, the Green Group, an unofficial association of the leaders of the big U.S. environmental non-profits, told Harry Reid they supported a single legislative goal: An economy-wide cap. Their strategy was to assemble the broadest possible coalition to push the broadest possible bill. Given the magnitude of the crisis and the need to reduce emissions quickly, this made sense. Politically, though, it proved disastrous, because it led to bills of such cost, scope, and complexity that they scared the pants off timid legislators.

The Green Group held out for an economy-wide bill even after it became clear, in late 2009, that it was unachievable in the Senate. Only recently did environmental leaders try to negotiate a compromise cap on electric power plants, which account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions. Passing a utility cap would have been a great first step, but the talks got started too late. The Green Group wanted too much and ended up with nothing.

5. The Power Barons. When the eleventh-hour search for a compromise began, the utilities got too greedy. If they had to go it alone, they argued, they deserved virtually all of the carbon allowances in the program for free. This left too few for other crucial purposes, such as cushioning manufacturers from higher electricity prices. Worse, in exchange for supporting a carbon cap, some utilities demanded relief from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations governing conventional pollutants such as mercury. Like the greens, they asked for too much and got nothing. (The greens, however, were overreaching on behalf of the planet, not their own coffers.) Some utility bosses were relieved to see the bill die. Those feelings may prove short-lived as the battle to reduce emissions moves to the EPA and the courts.

Some advocates, such as Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund, regard the decision to negotiate with the power barons as the height of folly. Washington, they argue, should simply dictate the terms of surrender to the polluters. Such a stance ignores an important fact: It isn’t possible to remake the U.S. energy system without negotiating with the power barons. Punishing generators means punishing households that pay electricity bills. That doesn’t mean, however, that the politicians should give the barons everything they want. But there was only one player with the clout to cut a fair deal with them, and he was missing in action.

6. The President. Barack Obama chose not to lead on this issue. His decision to address health care reform before energy and climate change doomed the latter. With advisors Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod whispering that climate was a losing proposition (a self-fulfilling prophesy, to be sure), Obama 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.

The real grownups in this tale were Rep. Henry Waxman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who last year surprised the Obama Administration by taking a comprehensive climate bill to the House floor. The White House had no choice but to help whip the vote, and it passed. Then Obama stopped trying, and the Senate refused to take up the legislation. It was a colossal failure of nerve, and a decision that likely destroyed any chance of achieving climate action in Obama’s first term.

Since the president and his political advisers thought an economy-wide cap was too heavy a lift, Obama should have led a tactical retreat to what, in the past several months, became the last-ditch compromise position: the cap on the electric power sector. Had negotiations focused on this months ago instead of weeks ago, and had the president thrown his weight behind it then, we might today be celebrating a step forward instead of mourning another failure. Only Obama had the authority to call this audible early. The environmental NGOs and their allies were too invested in the economy-wide approach; they needed Obama to lead them.

He refused. To the bitter end, the White House pursued what his aides called a “stealth strategy” that deployed the president only sparingly. As a result, he failed to take advantage of the BP oil spill. When its terrible scope became apparent, in June, Obama began talking about the need to cap carbon and accelerate the transition to clean energy. But it was a fleeting moment. Many climate campaigners knew the climate bill was dead on June 15, when Obama gave his long-awaited Oval Office address on the oil spill. Instead of making an explicit connection to the climate bill — and explaining that by capping carbon the U.S. could speed its transition to clean energy and help break its addiction to fossil fuels — Obama whiffed. He had a road map but didn’t try to share it with the people. “We don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there,” he said. Today, with that map in shreds, we surely don’t.

As climate campaigners wait however long it takes to get another shot at legislation, there is important work to be done. Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have been dropping — and not just because of the recession. The task is to build on this trend during the economic recovery. Changes in our energy infrastructure are making this possible. In Texas, our highest-emitting state and a bastion of climate skepticism, carbon emissions have been declining since 2004 thanks in part to a renewable energy standard — signed into law by then-Gov. George W. Bush — that accelerated the installation of wind power and created thousands of jobs along the way.

The Department of Energy now has 7,000 clean energy projects across the country — projects that save money, create jobs, and reduce emissions. According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, by leveraging existing authority over the next ten years the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent to 12 percent below 2005 levels. This is far short of the 17 percent reduction Obama promised in Copenhagen and nothing close to what needs to be done. But if we continue cutting emissions before asking voters to embrace a cap, we prove that cuts are both technologically feasible and economically sustainable. And we’ll be in a better position when the next legislative opportunity comes.

Until then, the climate war will be waged by cities, states, regional cap-and-trade programs, and, above all, the EPA, which early next year is set to begin regulating stationary sources of CO2 — power plants and large factories.

Welcome to the “glorious mess” — Michigan Rep. John Dingell’s phrase for the tangle of regulation and litigation that will follow when Congress fails to act. We are about to experience precisely 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. Green groups that have invested time and money into the legislative process are now putting on their war paint and returning to the courts, with a renewed focus on stopping new coal-fired power plants and shutting down the oldest and dirtiest ones.

Tough new EPA rules for conventional pollutants will help, and so will new EPA carbon regulations. Perhaps these strict new regulations will refresh the power bosses’ appetite for a cap. But they have plenty of lawyers, and the long, ugly battles over implementation of EPA regulations could extend the current period of uncertainty by many years. Republicans (and some Democrats) will try to strip EPA of its authority over carbon, or at least delay implementation of its new rules.

In effect, the Senate will be saying that Congress alone should have the power to act — so that it can then not exercise that power. Obama’s aides say the president will be fully engaged in the battle to save EPA authority over carbon. It is a fight that he can’t possibly duck, because it is our last line of defense. As Gore reminded me in Copenhagen, “The fact that this is extremely hard doesn’t mean we should quit.”

I wrote this essay for Yale Environment 360:

July 24

Washington Pulls the Plug on the Climate Bill

“If the United States doesn’t act, if the Senate defeats the legislation, that is an event horizon beyond which it is difficult to see. It may mean there is a fundamental flaw in the international political approach, but I’m not sure there is a good alternative. The reality is so dire that a new plan would have to emerge—but just now I can’t imagine what it would be. The fact that this is extremely hard doesn’t mean we should quit.”

—Al Gore, from a conversation in Copenhagen,
December 2009, quoted in The Climate War

July 18

Franke James’ Visual Review

Toronto artist/writer Franke James created this powerful “visual
review” of The Climate War. I’m delighted that my book has inspired
such a compelling piece. It’s my favorite review so far — please take
a look, I think you’ll be moved. For the full review, please visit James’ site here.

Ending the Climate War

Franke  James drawing
Franke  James Inkblot drawing of 2 swans
Franke James drawing
Franke  James drawing Will America wake up?
Franke  James drawing of Climate War author Eric Pooley based on photo by  Michael O'Neill
drawing of statue of liberty by Franke James with Climate War book
Photo-illustration by Franke James; Congress WikiMedia photo by  Diliff
Text from  The Climate War. Handwritten text and Fly on the Wall illustration by  Franke James
Handwritten text and light bulb illustration by Franke James
dragon and child illustration by Franke James
climate  war battle illustration by Franke James
Fossil  Dinosaur illustration by Franke James
photo of  sewer grate by Franke James. Tar sands photo by greenpeace
drawing  of super hero by Franke James with photos of Fred Krupp, Jim Hansen and  Al Gore. Google Earth Map view
drawing by Franke James
drawing by Franke James

Democrats and Republicans fighting drawing by Franke James
Angry drawing  by Franke James
Statue  of Liberty with Blindfold drawing by Franke James
drawing of black swan by Franke James
Excerpt of text from The Climate War with handwritten text by  Franke James
drawing  of politicians fighting by Franke James
drawing of  down arrow by Franke James
drawing oil  covered eagle by Franke James
drawing of  down arrow by Franke James
Quote from the Climate War by Eric Pooley, illustrated text by  Franke James
illustrated  oil and money by Franke James
Illustration of Jim Rogers by Franke James, based on press photo
Illustration by Franke James
end  climate war by Franke James

Take Action by Signing the Petitions Below


EDF petition: A Plea from Fellow Americans to President Obama: We Need You to Lead America to a Clean Climate & Energy Future

NRDC petition: Urge President Obama to lead the way on a clean energy bill

Sierra Club petition: Fact, Act, Win — Tell the Senate We Cannot Return to Business as Usual


NRDC petition: Urge President Obama to lead the way on a clean energy bill


Franke James merges science, art and storytelling to inspire people to take action and “do the hardest thing first” for the planet. Franke uses her skills as an artist, photographer and writer to create visual essays on environmental and social issues. She is the author of two award-winning books, Bothered By My Green Conscience and Dear Office-Politics, the game everyone plays.

Ending The Climate War © 2010 Franke James is a visual essay review of the book, The Climate War by Eric Pooley Published in 2010 by Hyperion.

Photographs, illustrations and writing by Franke James, MFA, except as noted below:
Excerpts from The Climate War
Fly on the Wall quote: Hansen and Rogers dinner, Pages 268-269
Safe Targets quote: Jim Hansen, Pages 261-262
EDF: 40 Years and Still No Action (YouTube video)
“Sewer Sky” illustration features: Tar sands photo by © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Congress WikiMedia photo by Diliff
Eric Pooley drawing by Franke James is based on a photograph © Michael O’Neill
Jim Rogers drawing by Franke James is based on a press photograph
Photos of Fred Krupp and Al Gore are from their Twitter profiles
Jim Hansen photo is from NASA
Google Earth Map © Google

July 1

Setting the ‘Climategate’ Record Straight: Michael Mann Cleared

An investigatory committee at Penn State has cleared Dr. Michael E. Mann — one of the climatologists at the center of the so-called Climategate scandal. “After careful review of all the available evidence,” the committee “determined that there is no substance to the allegation” against Mann. “Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities.”

In other words, all of the many, many commentators who pointed to the hacked emails at he heart of Climategate as “proof” that Mann and other climatologists had cooked their data are wrong. They owe Mann an apology. Most of those who bandied about these allegations, of course, will not offer an apology or correct their inaccurate assertions. Instead, they will no doubt charge Penn State with a “cover-up” and continue to make their false claims, because they are pushing a political agenda–climate denial and delay–that has benefited greatly from this so-called scandal. They are not about to give it up.

I among not among those who think the climatologists were blameless. They made mistakes, as I describe in The Climate War and in the following Bloomberg News column from December 1, 2009. What they did NOT do, as Penn State is now the latest to reaffirm, is falsify data, misuse the peer-review process, or otherwise play fast and loose with the facts. It’s the professional deniers who did that. Will the media now set the record straight?

“Climategate Proves Sunlight Best Reply to Skeptics”

The shouting match known as Climategate, which erupted after damaging e-mails were hacked from the server of a British climate research center, has been dominated by wishful thinking on both sides.

Climate skeptics pretend the e-mails are proof that man- made global warming is a hoax, the scientific consensus rigged. That’s preposterous.

The hacked scientists and their defenders argue that the e- mails amount to a tempest in a teacup, just another trumped-up attack from the skeptics. That’s not true either.

The real issue here is one of trust and transparency — values that apparently didn’t matter enough to Professor Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The files made public Nov. 19 include a message from Jones asking other scientists to delete e-mails, apparently as a way of dodging requests under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information law.

Other e-mails discuss trying to oust a journal editor who published skeptical papers and preventing dissenting views from being published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report,” Jones wrote. “Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer- review literature is!”

Jones didn’t have the power to block research from the IPCC’s climate assessment or “redefine” the peer-reviewed literature. His evident desire to do so is troubling, though his low opinion of the skeptical papers was justified. (Jones acknowledged that some of the e-mails “do not read well” but dismissed as “complete rubbish” the charge that he and his colleagues had manipulated data.)

Light of Day

Public trust demands that this scientific debate be carried out in the light of day — even when doing so means that bad science is trumpeted by the opponents of climate action.

One of the papers Jones questioned, for example, was so flawed that after its 2003 publication in Climate Research, the resulting furor led to the resignations of half the journal’s editorial board. By the time the paper had been discredited by other scientists, the noisiest climate skeptic in the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, had already held a hearing to publicize it. Even today, contrarian Web sites continue to tout its specious claim that the 20th century wasn’t particularly warm.


Jones and his colleagues talked about withholding information because they believed, based on bitter experience, that the skeptics who sought their data would cherry-pick their work for misleading “proof” that climate change was overblown. The irony is that by talking about withholding data, they ended up giving those skeptics a brand-new argument against them.

Circling the wagons in response to unfair attacks, an understandable response, had the effect in this case of fueling the naysayers. To regain whatever public trust may have been lost — and it isn’t yet clear how much damage this episode has done — Climategate must become the moment when the tactic of scientific stonewalling is abandoned, and absolute transparency becomes the only allowable standard.

Yes, the skeptics will cull data and make misleading arguments, and mouthpieces like Inhofe will trumpet them. Yet there is no better way to expose such false claims than to subject them to vigorous, transparent peer review.

Available to Researchers

The scientific community has started talking about the steps it needs to take to ensure the integrity and openness of the process, including online peer-review for scientific journals and full access to climate data. Happily, more than 95 percent of the Climatic Research Unit’s temperature data is already available to researchers, and the rest will soon be made available, according to the university. (A Nov. 29 Times of London story claimed that the unit had “dumped” much of its raw data, but the university says that isn’t the case.)

Let the skeptics have at the data — if the record is sound, it will survive the attacks. Indeed, it already has. Temperature records have been widely available for years, and the contrarians, in spite of repeated attempts, haven’t managed to undermine their credibility.

As University of Illinois climatologist Michael Schlesinger pointed out in a recent e-mail to the New York Times, the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit is just one of four major groups tracking global surface temperatures, and all of them show the same long-term warming trend.

River of Evidence

Other lines of evidence — changes in ocean temperature, atmospheric water vapor and sea ice, for example — have led scientists at research institutions around the world to the same conclusion: the climate is warming, and greenhouse-gas emissions are the cause. Climate science is a mighty river of inquiry, not a garden hose that can be aimed this way or that at the whim of individual scientists.

With a new round of climate negotiations set to begin Dec. 7 in Copenhagen, the hacked e-mails came at the worst possible moment — which was precisely what the hackers had in mind. Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann, one of the scientists whose e-mails were hacked, called the theft a “smear campaign to distract the public” from the need to reduce emissions. He is no doubt correct.

The tragedy is that Jones and his colleagues gave their opponents so much to work with.

June 27

Tuesday Preview: A Power Sector Cap?

On Tuesday, President Obama finally sits down with a bipartisan group of senators to talk about climate and energy legislation. It’s a big moment — perhaps the last chance Obama will have to make the case for a real climate bill before Senate Dema decide which provisions to include in their bill. Environmental groups are still hoping for an economy-wide cap. I’m all for that, but I won’t be surprised or crushed if the senators emerge from the meeting talking about a cap on the utility sector only. In fact, after the fires of the past year, I’d be delighted.

Power plants account for more than a third of US carbon emissions, so capping them would be an important first step. And the utility sector already has experence with a cap–a highly successful cap on sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain has been in place for 15 years. If we need to cap power plants first in order to prove the Chicken Littles wrong, so be it. But let’s get started already.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has signaled openness to a utility-only cap, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham–who coauthored the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill before withdrawing his support last month–has been talking about sponsoring one. Next year. So Job One for Obama on Tuesday is to fast-forward Graham, and get him back in the game now. If Lindsey and the others emerge from the meeting and endorse the idea of a utility-only cap this year, that will be a very big win. If, however, the senators make only the same sort of vague and meaningless noises they have been making for weeks, that will be a very, very bad sign.

Climate campaigners are always talking about make-or-break moments of decision. This moment deserves that description.

June 13

Why Obama Has to Step Up — By Thursday

As The Atlantic’s Marc Ambiner reported June 10, in a Senate meeting of committee chairmen “it became clear to many that there aren’t 60 voters” for an energy-and-climate bill that includes a mandatory declining cap on carbon. “A final decision will be made by the caucus next Thursday,” he added, on the question of whether to move ahead with an energy bill that does not include a carbon cap (not even one in the power sector, apparently, though most of the industry is now in favor of one).

Senate Democrats want to pass something they can campaign on, even if it isn’t the carbon cap America needs to drive clean energy investment. (The Senate’s version will have subsidies and mandates to prop up clean energy. Nice, as far as it goes, but a carbon cap would create a market that drives private investment over the long term — far more powerful than government subsidies could ever be.)

Why should the country have to settle for whatever the Senate can manage to cobble together in the next few weeks? Wouldn’t it be better to discover what might be achievable with sustained policy-making, politicking and communicating from President Obama? After all, the president only recently pledged to “keep fighting” for a carbon cap, conceding that the votes aren’t there now but promising to round them up over the coming months. If he really is willing to start now and work hard, he might get the votes he needs by the time the Senate reconvenes for its post-election “lame duck” session. By then, some famously cautious politicians heading for the exits (helloooo Evan Bayh!) might even be bold enough to do the right thing before leaving the stage. (But don’t count on it: Bayh was one of six Democrats  who last week voted in favor of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s odious, and now failed, resolution to strip the EPA of its power to regulate CO2.)

Is it really time to settle for an energy bill with no carbon cap, the sort of measure that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham used to call “half-assed”? If Obama leaves it up to the senators, that’s surely what they will do. But if the President inserts himself into the action in the next few days, he could change the trajectory and the timetable of this legislation.

He has until Thursday.