Climate Compass Blog

Lessons from Extreme Weather: A Minnesota Farmer Gets the Point

Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:

“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”

Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.

Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:

“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”

Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.

Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

The Days After

For many of us in the climate world, these days feel a bit like being in the movie The Day After, where nuclear winter had descended and John Lithgow was on the HAM radio calling out, “…Is there anybody out there? Anybody at all…?”

OK. So it’s not quite that bad.  But as we all know, Congress has been reshaped, and some long-time supporters of climate action (and coal) such as Rick Boucher (D-VA) are out, while others who ran ads literally shooting a rifle at a cap-and-trade bill, are in. And the number of actual climate deniers walking the halls of Congress has also increased.

So with the picture seemingly so bleak, and the chances of comprehensive climate legislation highly unlikely in at least the next couple of years, it would be natural for many in the corporate community to relax and think that they no longer have to think about climate change.

I think this would be dead wrong.  And lest you wonder about my grasp on reality, let me explain why.

First, let’s look to California.  Voters forcefully rejected Proposition 23, a measure that was a full-frontal assault on the nation’s most aggressive climate bill.  They also rejected a gubernatorial candidate who had promised to postpone AB32 for at least a year, and instead elected a governor who campaigned on aggressively implementing the same law.

California is the world’s 8th largest economy and typically leads the nation in environmental protection. The fact that it will soon be implementing a cap-and-trade system and other aggressive measures to reduce GHGs should be an indication that the issue is not going to quietly disappear into the night.  It is also remarkable that much of the financial support for the “No on Prop 23” campaign came from the venture capital and tech industries, which understand the market opportunities that clean energy and energy efficiency provide.

And while the political landscape may have changed this week, the businesses' case for taking climate action has not.  Leading companies should continue to keep climate and sustainability as an element of their core corporate strategies, and in my conversations over the past few weeks, they are. Regardless of whether federal climate legislation is adopted, “climate change” is a proxy for a number of critical operational issues such as energy, water, waste, and supply chain efficiency.  Companies that have a comprehensive plan to reduce their impacts in these areas realize not only bottom-line benefits, but reputational benefits as well.

And finally, let’s not forget the climate science.  The reality is that regardless of the state of policy, the climate continues to change, impacts are already being felt in our own backyards, and by not acting we continue to load the dice in favor of deeper floods, longer droughts, and bigger wildfires.  While politicians move at one pace, nature does not react to polls or get voted out of office.  And as one of my favorite cartoons of the last year points out, even if this were all just an elaborate hoax, the biggest risk of investing in clean energy, energy efficiency, water and waste management is that we would have created a healthier, safer world all for “nothing.”

Tim Juliani is Director of Corporate Engagement

New Pew Center Report Summarizes Federal Agency Adaptation Activities

We’ve been talking and hearing a lot about the notion of “mainstreaming” consideration of climate change into decision-making processes and figuring out ways to adapt to an already changing climate. A lot has been happening on the adaptation front at the Federal level – and we’ve been trying to keep you posted on all of the new initiatives. It was getting a bit challenging to keep up with everything and so over the last couple of months we’ve been compiling a lot of what we know into one place. The resulting report—Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing—is now available on our website.

As the report illustrates, Federal agency activities are numerous and diverse. Some agencies, such as the Department of Defense, are mainstreaming climate change adaptation by updating existing strategies or policies to include climate change impacts and adaptation options. Other agencies are more focused on enabling other entities—state and local governments, businesses, and communities—in furthering their adaptation planning and projects, as NOAA is doing with Climate Services. Figure 1 below includes some additional examples from the report. Of course, not all federal projects addressing climate change impacts or adaptations are included in this report. We’ve tried to at least include instances where a Federal department or agency has implemented specific institutional mechanisms, developed an agency-wide adaptation plan or set of policies, or is providing adaptation resources or tools.  

 

Happy reading – and if you are familiar with any Federal programs or initiatives that should be included in the report, please send them my way. We plan to expand on the information included in this new report with the hope that it will serve as a resource for collaboration and information sharing amongthe growing adaptation community.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Policy Fellow and Program Manager for Adaptation

Post-Partisan Power?

A new report, Post-Partisan Power, puts forth several interesting ideas for how the United States can accelerate technological progress to advance U.S. energy security and global climate protection. The authors are Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. The report has created a buzz, in part because of the “man bites dog” nature of the story – Brookings and AEI agree on something! And they are saying “post-partisan” out loud in these hyper-partisan times.

The authors recommend a number of initiatives that ought to be no-brainers – invest more in energy science and education, overhaul the energy innovation system by increasing funding for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and developing regional energy innovation centers, reform energy subsidies, use military procurement and competitive deployment to drive innovation and price declines, and pay for all this through a very small carbon tax or electricity fee. The major critique of the report, best articulated by Harvard economist Rob Stavins, is that these recommended steps are necessary but not sufficient – i.e., it is all very well for the government to invest in these technologies, but we also need to create a market for them through a strong carbon price or serious greenhouse gas reduction requirements. 

The authors have responded that they didn’t mean to imply that their recommendations include all we need to solve our energy and climate problems. However, their subtitle, “How a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and national prosperity,” makes it sound an awful lot like they did. And their opening critique of “both sides of the debate” on climate and energy is dismissive of pricing in general and cap and trade in particular – noting, for example, cap and trade’s defeat in the Senate but not its victory in the House, and saying pricing has not succeeded in reducing emissions in Europe, when in fact it has. But let’s set that aside for the moment. 

The more intriguing question this report raises for me is why the energy and climate debate is so stuck and why even the modest proposals described in “Post-Partisan Power” face an uphill battle. 

The report’s authors lament our irrational energy subsidies and dysfunctional federal support system for energy innovation, and I agree substantively with their critique and their proposed fixes. But this irrationality and dysfunctionality have persisted for a long time. Each energy source has a powerful constituency for federal subsidies and tax breaks. And for each DOE lab in the current national network that does most of our federal energy research, powerful regional interests protect the status quo. 

Similarly, policy analysts have made an airtight case for decades that pricing policies are both effective and cost-effective at reducing emissions, but for the most part politicians and the public have resisted such policies. We seem to prefer our regulatory costs to be high and hidden rather than low and transparent.

What is going on? I’m not sure, but I can think of at least two partial answers. The first is our political system’s focus on the size of government rather than its efficacy. The “great debate” in this election is whether the government should be bigger or smaller, not whether government is effectively doing whatever tasks it is assigned. The key critique of cap and trade was that it was a tax and that it looked like too much government, when the debate should have been about its efficacy in reducing emissions and minimizing costs. We measure success or failure of federal action with respect to a particular energy source by the size of the budget or tax breaks devoted to it, not whether such action is effectively driving innovation or bringing down technology costs. Hayward et al. suggest we fix this through better program design, but that will not be easy. It requires a transformation of our nation’s political thinking at a very deep level. 

The second answer is specific to the energy system. It is an inconvenient truth that fossil fuels have some really attractive characteristics as energy sources. They are abundant, seemingly cheap (if one doesn’t take into account their environmental or energy security impacts, and of course the market price does not do so), and “energy-dense” (meaning they can produce a lot of energy per unit of volume and mass). They have also been used for a long time, and their use has co-evolved with extensive fuel distribution infrastructure and fuel-using equipment. Thus, shifting away from these fuels requires displacing a suite of interdependent incumbent technologies. 

This problem is really different, in kind and in scale, from any the U.S. government or the U.S. economy has wrestled with before. It is not like computer innovation, where a new set of technologies created new markets for new services; or airplanes, in which military procurement dominated an emerging market. To move away from the energy system we have, which meets our private needs very nicely, to one that may have lower social costs but higher private ones (at least for some transitional period), is going to be very difficult. Hayward et al. hope that we can eat our cake and have it, too, by finding new technologies that have both lower social costs and lower private costs. But substantially increasing government investment won’t guarantee this outcome – certainly not by itself. Rather the United States must make climate protection and national security a priority, and develop and implement a conscious, ambitious, and comprehensive national strategy with full public support. This is a daunting challenge.

Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions

CARB’s Economic Analysis Helps Make the Case to Reject Proposition 23

Last Thursday, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published details on the proposed greenhouse gas trading program to be implemented under state law AB 32. AB 32, as our blog readers know, is under threat from Proposition 23 – which would forestall (perhaps indefinitely) meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gases in California. The analyses done by CARB in association with the development of the proposed program bolster the case for rejecting Prop 23.

These CARB analyses show that the trading program under AB 32 will “shift investment and growth within the overall economy toward those sectors driven by the production of cleaner and more-efficient technologies.” The importance of this targeted growth should not be understated – by moving toward energy technologies that are both home-grown and energy efficient, we reduce our economic exposure to the price volatility of global energy markets. Since the world is using more and more of what are ultimately finite quantities of fossil energy, protecting ourselves by transitioning the economy toward energy systems that are not subject to global supply and demand imbalances is important to protecting our future economic growth.

While transitioning to new and different systems for energy production and use will necessarily result in some temporary economic dislocation, the market mechanisms included in CARB’s regulatory program minimize these impacts. Taken directly from the CARB economic analysis appendix:  “Overall, staff finds no significant adverse impacts on California business or consumers as a whole as a result of the proposed regulation.”

With climate change legislation stalled on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., for the foreseeable future, maintaining the critical environmental legislation of AB 32 is extremely important for advancing the nation’s climate policy. Even absent action by other states, California is the world’s 8th largest economy and a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Action taken through policy in California is a huge step forward in addressing the global climate crisis.

Much of the rest of the world is waiting for the United States to take a leadership role on the issue of global climate change. With political gridlock in D.C., the best chance for the nation to make significant progress on this issue starts in California. AB 32 is the start of California’s transition to a 21st century economy of clean, green, homegrown energy – and represents an opportunity for the state, and the nation, to retake a leadership position in what will be some of the most important industries of the coming decades. 

Russell Meyer is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Policy