Climate Compass Blog

How culture shapes the climate change debate

I have an in-law who is, shall we say, rather skeptical about climate change. Any discussion on the topic usually begins with some contrarian science theory that he heard on one of his favorite talk shows (e.g. sun spots, deep ocean magma, urban heat islands), and then devolves from there.

Why do some Americans believe the antithesis of the scientific consensus on issues like climate change?

This topic is explored by Professor Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan in his new book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. As suggested by the title, Hoffman’s thesis – a distillation of considerable research from social scientists over the past several years – is that the public’s understanding of climate change, like other historically contentious issues such as evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, and genetically modified food – is as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.

One of the key arguments is that a scientific consensus does not necessarily reflect a “social consensus,” the latter being something that the majority of society would consider to be true.  For instance, the scientific consensus that cigarettes harm human health emerged decades before the social consensus emerged.

“Scientific knowledge is never socially or politically inert,” Hoffman writes, “particularly when it prompts changes in people’s beliefs or actions.” Indeed, we see that even today when there is a broad scientific and cultural consensus on the potential mortal harm of cigarette smoke, an estimated 42 million Americans smoke, 16 million live with cigarette-related disease, and cigarettes still account for around 20% of US deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A social consensus can be difficult to achieve in the face of a scientific one because individuals filter science news through their pre-existing beliefs, which are in turn influenced by their group values. This can be clearly seen in climate change polling, which breaks down predominantly along party lines.

Hoffman explains that disbelief of climate change is exacerbated by distrust of the typical messengers (environmentalists, Democrats, scientists), the process of scientific research (which most people do not understand), and the solutions (regulation, renewables).

Further, when a scientific consensus exists but the solutions pose a threat to the economic status quo (e.g. acid rain, tobacco, ozone hole, climate change), those opposed to change often work to discredit the science and create doubt in the minds of the undecided. Merchants of Doubt, a book by Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and the basis of a current documentary film, explores the history of such disinformation campaigns.

Recognizing that the messenger can be as important as the message, the C2ES (then Pew Center) Business Environmental Leadership Council was formed in 1998 in part as progressive corporate alternative to the Global Climate Coalition, a group of companies that actively funded a campaign to question the science of climate change and thus the need for action. Ten years later, more than 90 organizations, including 75+ business (and some former members of the Global Climate Coalition), joined an ad campaign led in part by C2ES to support climate and clean energy legislation.

So times do change.

Yet it is also important to remember that even if and when a social consensus is reached, changes in human behavior can still be difficult to achieve, as we saw in the smoking example (and if you subscribe to the notion that the global economy is “addicted” to fossil fuels, perhaps the metaphor is even stronger). This example also suggests that even if people are able to draw a connection between climate change and their personal experience – even their own health – getting them to act will remain a challenge.

Recently, we’ve seen some hopeful developments. Several climate change related amendments received bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this year, and companies and governments alike are making climate commitments leading up to the Paris climate talks in December.

In the end, as Hoffman says, talking about solutions can be most productive. Sure enough, my climate skeptical in-law is paradoxically a fanatic about being energy efficient at home – something he and I can agree on. And finding common ground helps to continue the conversation.


World economy grew, but carbon emissions didn't

In a sign that low-carbon policies may finally be gaining traction, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions leveled off last year even while the world economy grew.

Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that energy-related CO2 emissions (from burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, industry, space heating and so on) remained unchanged from the previous year at 32.3 billion metric tons. Meanwhile, economic growth increased 3.3 percent.

One year’s data doesn’t necessarily translate into a trend. Even with much stronger efforts, it will be some time before we can truly announce that we have turned the corner on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But 2014 is notable in that it’s the first time since the IEA was established in the early 1970s that a levelling off or a drop in global carbon emissions didn’t accompany an economic downtown.

Historically, energy-related CO2 emissions have moved in lockstep with economic growth. They’re being decoupled due to policy changes and market forces affecting two factors – energy intensity and fuel mix – both in China and in the developed economies.

Energy intensity is a measure of how much energy a country uses to create its goods and services, or GDP. While fuel mix looks at what sources, such as fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables, a country uses to derive its energy.

In China, efficiency policies, ambitious targets for renewable and nuclear energy, and anti-pollution measures appear to be having the desired effect. Emissions in China last year dropped for the first time, by 2 percent, even as its economy grew 7.3 percent.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer and largest emitter of CO2, has committed to reducing its energy intensity, setting goals in its last two five-year plans. China’s energy intensity will decline as it transitions from a predominantly manufacturing economy to a more service-based economy, since services such as finance, retail, and software development require less energy than steel and cement making.

Chinese coal consumption fell by 2.9 percent last year due to new, cleaner electric generating capacity, new restrictions on where new coal plants can be built, and shutdowns of older, less efficient plants in urban areas.

In developed countries, long-standing policies to promote energy efficiency and increase the adoption of renewable electricity generation seem to be paying off. CO2 emissions in developed countries peaked in 2007 and were nearly 7 percent lower in 2012, even as economic activity increased after 2010.

Developed countries have reduced energy intensity by improving vehicle fuel economy and increasing the efficiency of appliances and industrial and commercial equipment. U.S. fuel economy standards adopted in 2012 for model years 2017 to 2025 will double the efficiency of the U.S. fleet compared with vehicles manufactured in 2008, lowering emissions. Moreover, the United States, the European Union, Japan and many other countries are encouraging greater adoption of more efficient lighting, refrigerators, and industrial equipment, reducing electricity consumption.

In the US, 30 states and the District of Columbia have renewable electricity standards, which, along with other national policies, are encouraging greater quantities of renewable generation. Since 2002, non-hydro renewable electricity generation in the United States has more than tripled. Germany has installed more solar PV than anywhere in the world.

Market forces have also contributed to decarbonizing the fuel mix, particularly in the United States. An abundance of natural gas, brought about by technological innovation, has led to its greater use in the power sector. Since 2005, natural gas’ share of the U.S. electricity mix has increased from 19 to 27 percent, while coal’s share has gone from 50 to 39 percent. Since burning natural gas releases half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal (and far fewer pollutants per unit of energy), the shift to natural gas plus growing renewable generation lowered U.S. power sector emissions 15 percent.

While these developments are promising, the IEA’s own projections show we’re not likely to stay on this path, and that global CO2 will increase in the future. The World Energy Outlook 2014’s more optimistic scenario projected energy-related CO2 emissions will rise 8 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2030, led by emissions growth in developing countries. Non-CO2 greenhouse gases are also expected to increase, and land-use changes and deforestation could also worsen the problem.

Clearly, there is more work to do.

But there’s reason to be optimistic, especially as more countries announce their intended contributions to a new international climate agreement due this December in Paris. Greater adoption of policies that reduce energy intensity, promote energy efficiency, and decarbonize our fuel mix will help countries, states, cities and companies reduce emissions and mitigate the damage from climate change.


US climate target encourages others to put best foot forward

I recently wrote a piece for China Dialogue about the US announcement of its intended contribution to a new international climate agreement due this December in Paris. Here is that article:


The US pushed strongly for getting climate targets on the table well ahead of this year’s Paris negotiation, arguing that exposing countries’ offerings to a bit of scrutiny would encourage them to “put their best foot forward.”  With the formal submission of its intended target, the Obama administration arguably has done just that.

The US contribution is, for the moment, only a declaration of intent. But by coming out early with the strongest target it believes it can muster, the White House has charted an ambitious course at home. And it is upping the pressure on China and other major economies to do the most that they can too.

The end result, hopefully, is a new agreement in Paris that not only pulls all these numbers together, but also holds countries accountable for their promises, and commits them to keep returning to the table in the years ahead to assess and strengthen their efforts.

Continuing to lead by example on federal sustainability

As the country’s largest landlord, fleet operator, and purchaser of goods and services, the federal government can lead by example in moving the country toward a more sustainable future.

Taking that opportunity, the Obama Administration recently issued a new executive order, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, that builds on energy-saving advances and ups the targets for federal agencies to do even more. Joining in the commitment to cleaner energy and energy efficiency were 14 companies that are major federal suppliers.

A 2009 executive order set a target of reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The March 2015 executive order raises the bar – to 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025. The goal is expected to save taxpayers up to $18 billion in avoided energy costs.

The order also directs federal agencies to:

  • Increase the use of renewable energy sources to 30 percent of total consumption by 2025,
  • Reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions from federal fleets 30 percent by 2025 and ensure a fifth of the fleet is made up of zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025, and
  • Reduce the amount of water used in federal buildings 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2025.

Complementing the new executive order, 14 large federal suppliers committed to new or expanded emission pledges that would cumulatively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by 2020. Several members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council made commitments:

  • IBM will reduce its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and buy 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by that year.
  • GE will invest $25 billion in research and development in energy efficiency and clean energy and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below a 2011 baseline by 2020.
  • HP will reduce the emissions intensity of its product portfolio 40 percent by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

Taken together, the new executive order and the voluntary commitments from federal suppliers will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million metric tons below 2008 levels by 2025, according to White House estimates.

Figure: Fiscal Year 2013 Federal Government Direct Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Category

Federal direct greenhouse gas emissions totaled nearly 45 million metric tons of CO2e in Fiscal Year 2013. Over 60 percent of emissions are from purchased electricity. Transportation emissions include those from passenger fleet vehicle, vehicles, aircraft, ships, and related equipment.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy (2014), "Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance"

Power can be both clean and reliable

A number of analysts have raised concerns that the proposed Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing power plant carbon emissions, could threaten the reliability of electric power. But a closer look at the U.S. power system and the safeguards in place suggests that these reliability issues are manageable. The greater threat to reliability, in fact, is the rising incidence of extreme weather driven by climate change.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is overseen by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and government authorities in Canada, is responsible for keeping our power system reliable. NERC develops reliability standards and assesses the power system to anticipate and minimize the risk of disruption. It was established after a 1965 multi-hour Northeast blackout. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by 65 percent and power generation is more than 3.5 times greater with only one comparable blackout, in 2003.

Last fall, NERC issued an initial report identifying reliability issues under the Clean Power Plan that required further investigation. NERC and other analysts have questioned whether our natural gas system can handle more demand if more power plants switch from coal to natural gas. NERC also questioned how the power system will respond to less 24/7 baseload coal generation and more intermittent renewable generation.

Since the NERC report was issued, the Department of Energy, The Analysis Group and the Brattle Group have offered analyses that suggest power plant emissions can be reduced under the Clean Power Plan without compromising system reliability.