Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Newspaper with GOOD NEWS on cover. The fashionable narrative about climate politics in American media is deflationist: nobody cares about climate any more because of some emails, the Senate clean energy bill is doomed because of the economy, and the Copenhagen climate talks will end in failure because of intractable differences between developed and developing nations.

It gets old. Just for a little serotonin boost as the chaotic, exhausting two-week process gets underway, here are a few nuggets of positivity.

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On the front page of today’s Guardian is an editorial that’s appearing in 56 newspapers in 45 countries (and in Grist!): “Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation.” Despite the obvious difficulty of wrangling so many perspectives into one coherent essay (described here by the editor who pulled it together), it actually came out quite detailed and forceful. It shows just how broad a consensus exists (outside the U.S., anyway) about the way forward. The two key bits:

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance—and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

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… the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives.

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Yup. Sadly, only one U.S. newspaper, the Miami Herald, was willing to sign on. Offer them some props ( — I’m sure the ‘winger hordes will be outside their offices with pitchforks soon.

Sign Up for More News from GristObama shifted his visit to the Copenhagen talks from the first week to the last day, indicating a substantial increase in the administration’s commitment to, and hopes for, a successful outcome. (I wrote about this on Friday.) He also brokered a commitment from developed nations to pledge $10 billion a year to developing nations, the crucial “fast start” money needed to keep poor nations from bolting.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate’s longest-serving member, has typically been thought of as an almost certain No vote on clean energy legislation, thanks to his state’s deep ties to coal. So it was a shock, to say the least, when he delivered a speech/op-ed last Thursday called “Coal Must Embrace the Future.” Given the source, and the target, the words are surprisingly blunt:

Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive. … It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. … Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible. …

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment. … The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. … The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

This hardly means Byrd is a guaranteed vote for a clean energy bill, but it’s clear that legacy is on his mind and at the very least his vote is in play.

The EPA will reportedly release its “endangerment finding” on CO2 today, locking in the process of regulating CO2. That’s got the U.S. business community freaked out. Perhaps, who knows, they’ll get so freaked out they’ll stop trying to block the legislation that would give them, comparatively, a much better deal.

China’s environment minister said today that China’s emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040.

Now, that’s roughly what the International Energy Agencay says will happen in China under business-as-usual. Indeed, the target announced last week to much hype — 40-45 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” from 2005 levels by 2020 — is a) not new, and b) also what will happen under business-as-usual, as Michael Levi explains.

So China isn’t announcing anything particularly ambitious. Nonetheless, I think there are difficult-to-measure effects that come just from putting these numbers on record — just talking, publicly, about emissions peaking. Now China’s pride and international credibility have been committed to something concrete. There’s a floor under their efforts. The next few decades of diplomacy with China — both bilateral with the U.S. and multilateral via the UNFCCC — will be a process of raising that floor. They’re in the game now. (Same with India.)

James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupurt Murdoch and CEO of News Corp. for Europe and Asia, had an op-ed in The Washington Post called “Clean energy conservatives can embrace.” At least in the context of current American conservatism, it’s shockingly reasonable and forward looking. It’s somewhat ironic, of course, that such sentiments could never appear on, say, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, or Fox News. But when a conservative this powerful starts preaching sanity on clean energy, it can’t help but have some effect.

Last Thursday, a group of eight important centrist Senate Democrats sent a letter (PDF) to Obama, detailing their conditions for supporting the clean energy bill. What’s notable is what’s missing: there are no demands to lower targets, increase offsets, or increase free allowances to polluters. Almost all the conditions are reasonable, which indicates that the letter is meant as a gesture of support, not an attempt to drag the process down.

There are two issues in the letter that might prove contentious. First, there are border adjustments: tariffs on carbon-intensive products from countries with no carbon controls in place. This is a crucial ask for senators in manufacturing states, to protect their business constituents against unfair competition from China. China, however, is adamant it won’t accept any such tariffs. Second, the letter asks that commitments from other countries be “detailed, ambitious, quantifiable, measurable, reportable, verifiable, and nationally appropriate.” So-called MRV (measurable, reportable, and verifiable) issues are a major point of tension with China and India, which do not want international verification of their efforts unless those efforts are supported by money from developed countries.

Despite the heated rhetoric around both issues, there is wiggle room and agreements are reachable. The main point is that Midwestern Dems are ready to vote for a clean energy bill in the Senate.

So there you have it. Lots of good stuff happening! Keep it in mind as the media showers you with predictions of failure over the next few weeks.

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