For those mercifully far enough away not to know, the “Capital beltway” is a looping highway, Interstate 495, the way many metro Washington residents ride to work. “Inside the beltway” isn’t coincident with Washington, DC. It also connotes a mythical place unrestrained by geography, a state of mind where consequential details of legislation attract and hold attention, sometimes for years on end. Whether you work inside or outside the beltway determines whether you think there was climate news this week in the capital, and by extension, Bonn.
Insider baseball: Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee chairmen who authored the climate bill now moving through the House, spent the week explaining the 900-plus-page draft to colleagues. At this writing, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) just began an agriculture committee hearing into how the bill might affect rural communities. Peterson and more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress threaten to hold their support from the bill unless Waxman and Markey address their concerns about equitable treatment of farmers. Republicans introduced an energy bill in the House Wednesday that emphasizes nuclear power and would set as a target the construction of 100 new reactors over the next two decades, 100 more than the U.S. has built in three decades.
Talks in Beijing between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters, China and the U.S., overshadowed international negotiators in Bonn, who are wrapping up two weeks of United Nations-guided talks, according to the Economist.
Climate chatterers have ample material with which to choose how to think about developments in China. That’s not because the ideology behind different publications support different facts — although that does happen with greater frequency in the U.S. media. It’s because there are so many facts coming out of China, it’s hard to keep track of all the trends. Here are two. The Guardian buttonholes a national development officer who boasts that by 2020 China will produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources — on par with Europe. That’s not mutually exclusive with the continued rise in Chinese coal use — 1.8 percent higher in 2008 than in 2007, according to Bloomberg. A lively debate continues in scientific and policy circles about whether the rise of coal use in China is significantly reversing a three-decade long global decline in the carbon-intensity of industrial fuels.
“Outsider” baseball: Without a simple beltway story unifying the news, media coverage becomes a patchwork of simultaneous episodes in the climate saga. Disinterested observers might wish for a national or international climate regime, not because they care about a particular approach, but because it might help impose one central storyline on the whole climate space, its politics, policy, business, and science (Sort of the way that some argue for a national climate policy to unify efforts in California, the Northeast, and the West).
Instead, this week’s stories play out in the Midwest and U.K., in Texas and China, as many people around the world confront the climate challenge locally. Two stories from Hawaii beg the question, why does this matter to anyone else? By any traditional standard, they don’t. Some 50,000 people on Oahu have been given rebates for solar water heating systems that are expected to cut fossil-fuel bills significantly. On Maui, a German-born entrepreneur is pushing the state’s utility regulator to adopt what’s called inside the beltway a “feed-in tariff,” a law that would offer homes powered by renewable electricity a fixed price per kilowatt, over a 20-year contract and guarantee a connection to the grid so homes and businesses can send unused electricity into the network. This nano-scale Hawaiian news suggests that forces other than politics are shaping energy transformation on the margins. A beltway insider recently suggested to Climate Post that climate legislation is having its make-or-break moment in Congress, and if it fails will vanish after that — poof! This week’s global headlines suggest that the potential for new-energy entrepreneurship — and, on the downside, risk of catastrophic climate change — will ploddingly change behavior regardless of congressional actions this time.
Tilting at exploration platforms: Fights over wind power are a common trend this week in the Midwest. Chicago private and civic leaders fear that a national carbon regime is likely to raise electricity prices in the region, but is also likely to ignite the rust belt’s economic renewal. Midwest governors received a report commissioned in 2007 charting a cap-and-trade program to help six states reduce their emissions. Wisconsin is emblematic of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back success of wind power in the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.
Confusion about what to do isn’t limited to the Midwest, where this week’s reports document conflicts within neighborhoods and between interest groups. Greenwire catches a Monmouth University poll suggesting that individuals are conflicted within about energy issues: The number of Mid-Atlantic residents who support offshore drilling rose from 33 percent to 46 percent in two years. More than 80 percent support offshore wind farms if they can’t be seen from land — and 67 percent do if they are visible.
Whither wind? Scientists cited in an AP story suggest that average wind speeds across the U.S. might be slowing. Roger Pielke Jr. takes a bite out of the finding at over at Prometheus, and Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann parse the question at Real Climate.
The eclectic physicist Freeman Dyson has garnered increased attention in the last couple of years for his skeptical thinking about global warming, in a New York Review of Books essay, a New York Times Magazine cover story, and this week an interview with Yale e360. In the latter piece, Dyson provides abundant caveats for his views, namely that he doesn’t know “technical facts.” Dyson’s general attacks on computer modeling studies of climate change exclude the “preponderance of evidence,” physical evidence, that suggest big changes are afoot.
Prefer glazed donuts, please: When a proposed law as consequential as the climate bill (few are more consequential) passes through a major committee en route to the House floor, prominent commentators forge new opinions in real time. When mainstream thinkers take on previously cloistered policy, it’s a good time for both communities to take notes. Take newly minted Pulitzer columnist Eugene Robinson’s Washington Post column about so-called clean coal technology. He introduces the topic with this sentence:
The plan is to meet ambitious targets for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases through development and widespread use of an unproven technology known as — prepare for your eyes to glaze over – carbon capture and storage. [Emphasis added.]
Hawaiian solar water heaters, Ohio street dirt and “pulp liquor,” carbon capture and storage, and Mississipi Delta bamboo industry expansion (it exists) might not qualify as an eye-popping thrill ride, but it appears to be the ride we’re on.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.