Climate change, and the role of humans in it, was at the heart of carbon cap-and-trade bills in 2009 and 2010. It is also a substantial argument in support of the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide as a harmful greenhouse gas. But, there seems to be a disconnect between the main voices discussing the validity of climate change – specifically, between scientists and the media. And this disconnect has muddied the energy policy debate into a full-blown wrestling-match between those who believe that we should act to reduce climate change’s negative effects, and those who disagree with either the science or the response to it.
The result of this battle – policy that appears to ignore science.
Last Friday, I wrote about a session that I attended at the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, DC. Titled “Science Without Borders and Media Unbound,” this session pulled together scientists and science journalists to discuss the (lack of) acceptance of human factor in climate change by the public. According to members of the panel, while the vast majority of scientists (~98%) agree that climate change is real and humans contribute significantly to it, only about half of the public agrees. What is the root of this disconnect?
Throughout the session, there were discussions and debates on how the media had chosen to cover the topic of climate change (with a climategate, scandal focus) versus the calm, pragmatic (and at times, jargon-filled) approach to discussing the validity of climate change due to human actions, and the potential serious effects. The problem of the media as a truth-seeker versus the media as a ratings- and revenue-seeker came up throughout the discussion. But, more broadly, there seemed to be agreement that there was a disconnect between the two main climate change voices – scientists and the media.
According to David Wogan, who attended the same session, the disconnect might be due to a communication breakdown.
One of the benefits of climate change, as it turns out, is that it highlights how science communication leaves much to be desired. As discussed by the panelists, there are a lot of reasons why talking about science is a hard thing.
Scientists, for the most part, just aren’t good at explaining what they’re doing and why anyone else should care.
The lack of communication skills shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honor, as I’ve observed too many times, or awkwardly acknowledged then avoided. No, the modern scientist needs better communication skills. And stat.
On Saturday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget that, if adopted by the Senate and the President, could effectively eliminate the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases due to a severe lack of funding. This budget was passed with a majority of 249-177 despite the strong public support of the EPA’s actions under the Clean Air Act. It was also passed in spite of the near-universal belief in our negative impact on global climate change.
How can we fix the disconnects in the energy and climate change debate and get these discussions back on track?
A lot is going on in Washington in the energy and environment sphere as budget woes have made programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DoE) targets for the next line of cuts. Later today, the White House will unveil its 2012 budget proposal, which is rumored to be ambitious and tough. One thing that is sure – the President’s budget will set the stage for a showdown between a divided House and Senate.
House Republicans appear to have targeted federal energy and environment programs as an area where they can significantly reduce government spending and bring down the trillion-dollar federal debt. They are proposing a more than 1/3 cut in the Department of Energy’s efficiency and renewables budget.
This appears to fly in the face of the Obama administration’s desire to encourage clean energy innovation through research and commercialization. The administration is proposing that $8 billion be designated for clean energy technology programs (including the same efficiency and renewable programs that Republicans are targeting for cuts). To save money, the President has proposed a 5-year spending freeze and cuts to more than 200 other federal programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-New York) say that they are ready to work with Republicans to find a budget compromise. But, as Schumer was recently quoted in saying:
We’re willing to meet Republicans in the middle on spending, but they keep lurching to the right…This is what happens when you pick a number first and figure out the cuts later.
Energy and climate legislation in Washington? On the hill today, this question will leave you with crickets and dropping pens. And, in the latest blow to energy and climate since Republicans captured the majority in the House of Representatives, the White House Energy and Climate Change advisor is leaving her post.
The NY Times reported today that Carol Browner, the White House Advisor for Energy and Climate Change will be leaving her position soon. Browner will step down from her post without achieving her goal of ushering comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Does this mean that hope for federal action on this issue is gone until 2013?
Browner was chosen in 2009 to lead the newly minted White House Office of Energy and Climate Change. The former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Clinton Administration, Browner came to the advisory position with many years of experience in DC. It was believed that this experience would help her usher in the charge in DC toward passing comprehensive federal energy and climate legislation.
But, Browner will be leaving Washington with a stalled bill in the Senate and little hope on the horizon that this legislation will pass the President’s desk. It appears that regulating greenhouse gases is a big task for a divided congress in the 112th session.
In the United States, we use coal to meet about half of our electricity needs. But, with new EPA air pollution rules slated to go into effect next year 20% of the country’s coal power plants might be cooling down their boilers closing the plant doors. According to a recent Christian Science Monitor article on the new EPA rules, the speed with which these requirements are instituted is the driving force behind these plant closures.
The 20% of the coal fleet that is at rick is predominately filled with older facilities (40 years + in service) that have historically benefited from exemptions from emissions requirements (a.k.a. “grandfathering“) but will not escape from Clean Air Act requirements.The short timeline (new rules will be in effect starting in April and November of 2011) makes it uneconomic for these plants to upgrade their current systems. Instead, older power plants – with their antiquated emissions control systems – will quickly fall into retirement.
It looks like there is quite a year in store for us on the energy and environment front…
Yesterday, my blog post was on the EPA’s work in developing a structure under which they can regulate large stationary emitters of greenhouse gases. This work could provide an alternative method of reducing these emissions if congress is unable to pass proposed carbon cap and trade legislation into law. The EPA has recently issued their proposed rule for regulating greenhouse gas emissions and several congressmen are striking back. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is co-sponsoring a resolution with Senator Lindsey Graham (R- South Carolina) that would tie the EPA’s hands (at least for a while) by disapproving their finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health and welfare. The resolution is expected to be voted on in 2-3 weeks. The resolution’s co-sponsor is the same Senator Graham who worked with Senators Kerry and Lieberman on developing the Senate’s current energy and climate bill proposal, titled the American Power Act, only to step away from the table just before its reveal. According to Senator Graham, many of the supporters of this resolution believe that we need federal regulations to reduction greenhouse gas emissions. However, they believe that this type of regulation should come from Congress and not from the EPA.
Federal lawmakers have been working for over a year on the development of energy and climate legislation that would regulate the emission of greenhouse gases. This legislation currently sits in the Senate, where a proposal released last week by Senators Kerry and Lieberman has sparked significant discussion and debate.
But the Obama Administration has not put all its eggs in this legislative basket. The Administration is also pursuing regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under existing legislative authority held by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA may regulate greenhouse gases that threaten public health and welfare. On December 7th of last year, the EPA announced its finding regarding current and projected concentrations of six different greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) in our atmosphere. The finding (in short) acknowledged the negative impact of these gases.
Subsequent to this finding, the EPA has developed a set of guidelines that would govern their actions to regulate emissions from large power plants, factories and oil refineries. Under a rule proposed last Thursday, qualifying facilities would be limited in their ability to emit certain greenhouse gases. These facilities would include those that emit at least 75,000 tons (for existing plants) of greenhouse gases per year or 100,000 tons per year for new facilities. These facilities represent 70 percent of stationary greenhouse emissions in the United States today. Mobile emitters (aka you and me when we’re driving our cars) would not be directly impacted by this rule – though we would certainly feel its indirect impact from regulations on oil refineries.