Climate Compass Blog

How to Avoid Temporary Relief that Leads to Bigger Headaches

The Washington energy and environment community is abuzz with speculation about the fate of the energy-climate bill.  Given the bruising partisan battles that lie ahead for health care reform, the jobs bill, financial service modernization, and so on, does Congress have the time and political capital left to tackle climate change in its expected energy bill?  Would it not be best, some ask, to buy temporary relief, to put off climate for another day?

Temporary relief, unfortunately, will only buy us bigger headaches tomorrow. The energy-only proposals advocated by some would do little or nothing to address a host of issues that grow only more expensive, complicated, and politically challenging if we delay their resolution until, say, 2012. Here are some of the problems we begin to address with climate policy that are not resolved by the energy-only proposals we have seen:

  • Power companies and businesses need to know the regulatory rules of the road before they will be willing to invest millions of dollars in new plants.  This uncertainty inhibits investment today, as well the jobs that would go with the investment.  In particular, it inhibits investment in coal carbon capture and storage and in nuclear power.
  • China and other countries are investing heavily in clean energy and taking the lead in the booming global market in clean energy technologies.  American ingenuity is second to none, but time is running out.  Every year the United States delays in putting a price on carbon emissions we fall further behind in this race, and lose future jobs.
  • The United States continues to be dependent on oil from countries that do not have our best interests at heart.  Until we reward low-emitting transportation fuels and methods by putting a cost on carbon emissions, this dependency is expected to grow.
  • Other countries whose support we need to achieve so many of our international objectives – including fighting terrorism and ensuring economic growth – are dismayed that the United States has sat out the climate issue for so many years.  In Copenhagen, thankfully, we showed leadership.  Other nations made clear their intent to contribute to global efforts in Copenhagen; we shouldn't walk away from ours.  If we do not deliver on that promise by reducing our emissions, other countries may be more reluctant to ally with us on our other objectives.
  • The States, our courts, and regulatory agencies have all taken actions to begin addressing climate change.  What is needed is the comprehensive national policy that only Congress can produce.
  • And, oh yes, climate change itself:  Despite the campaign to convince the public otherwise, climate change is real, is happening now, is largely caused by human action, and presents our children and grandchildren grave risks if we do not start reducing our emissions now.

What would it take to begin to address these problems? The House of Representatives passed an energy-climate bill last year that includes a well-crafted economy-wide cap-and-trade provision, which would be our preferred approach. That said, there are many ways to integrate climate and energy policy to achieve multiple goals, including job creation, energy security, increased competitiveness in global clean energy markets, and reduced carbon emissions.  There may be a way to build an effective climate and energy program in steps, for example, by establishing the cap first on the power sector's emissions, or even through a "clean energy standard." The basic test is whether the policy would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and make emissions increasingly costly, thereby rewarding businesses that invent and deploy clean energy and other low-emitting technologies.

Manik Roy is Vice President, Federal Government Outreach

It’s so cold! What happened to global warming?

Science Q&A

On December 19, Washington, D.C. was buried by two feet of snow, setting a new record for snowfall during the entire month of December and paralyzing the city for three days.  As my neighbor and I shoveled out from the storm, he stopped for a moment, grinned, and asked, “So what happened to global warming?” Boy was he surprised when I said, “Glad you asked,” and launched into a 15-minute oratory on why global warming might mean more, not less, extreme snowfall for some parts of the world.

Before continuing, I need to reiterate that no single weather event can be attributed to global warming. So the question here is not, “What caused the heavy snowfall on December 19?” The question is, “Is heavy snowfall or unusually cold weather inconsistent with global warming?”

You need two things to create heavy snowfall: moist air and cold air. The two generally don’t occur in the same air mass because cold air can’t hold much moisture. So you need two air masses, one that is warm and moist and one that is cold and dry, to collide with each other. That is exactly what happened over the Mid-Atlantic region on December 19.

This condition is not only consistent with global warming, but it can be expected to occur more frequently in certain places as a direct result of global warming. It takes warmth to generate moist air. First, you need warmth to evaporate enough water from lakes or oceans to generate a massive snowstorm. Second, you need warm air to keep the water vapor aloft so that it doesn’t rain out before it finds a cold air mass to collide with. When I asked weatherman Joe Witte where the moisture that ended up in my snow shovel came from, he said, “Some of the moisture came out of the Gulf of Mexico AND some from the warm Atlantic ocean with the VERY warm (70s!) Gulf Stream along the East coast acting as a hot plate for evaporation of moisture into the cold dry air.”

(SOURCE:  NOAA polar-orbiting satellite data compiled by Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab)


Although the past few weeks have been very cold in the eastern United States, Joe pointed me to NOAA satellite measurements that found sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to be 1 to 3 °F warmer than normal during the week before the big snowstorm hit (see figures above). There is strong scientific evidence showing that, on average, the oceans are warmer today than they were a century ago because of human-induced global warming. So the warm ocean temperatures that fed the heavy snowfall are consistent with global warming. In fact, because of global warming, we should expect such conditions to be more common today than in the past and even more common in the future as warming continues.

So where did the cold, dry air come from? Global warming is about changes in long-term averages and not about single events; it does not mean an end to cold weather. Instead, it means that cold weather will become less frequent and hot weather more frequent when averaged over decades. In fact, both of these trends have been observed over the past 50 years in the United States and globally. So, even with global warming we will have cold winters, just fewer of them. It is also important to remember that a cold winter here doesn’t mean a cold winter everywhere. In fact, many parts of the world, including the Arctic and the tropics, are having an unusually warm winter. The current cold snap is concentrated in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and there will always be the potential  for cold Arctic air masses to visit the mid-latitudes from time to time.

The current cold snap is related to a known weather pattern called the Arctic Oscillation. When the Arctic Oscillation switches between “positive” and “negative” states, it simply shifts heat between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. Scientists call this kind of pattern “internal variability,” and it does not change the total amount of heat in the climate system. Internal variability can create strong differences in the weather from year to year and place to place, but these shifts average out to zero net climate change over decades. Only a net change in the total amount of heat in the climate system can change the long-term average climate, and that is the nature of global warming.

When the mid-latitudes get periodic blasts of cold Arctic air, global warming makes it more likely that the cold air from up north will collide with moist, warm air from down south, creating more heavy snowfall events in mid-latitude areas near large bodies of water. A similar phenomenon is affecting the Great Lakes region. Syracuse, New York is one of the snowiest places in the country, but it and other areas around the Great Lakes are getting even snowier! Because the Great Lakes are getting warmer, they are icing over later and melting earlier than they used to. Without the ice, water can evaporate and enter the atmosphere over the lakes later in the fall and earlier in the spring. When winds blow this moist air over the land where temperatures are lower, we get the famous “lake effect” snow. With more open water during the winter, more lake effect snow is falling.

These are the cold facts of global warming.

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Program Manager for Science & Impacts

Our Year in Review

Domestically and internationally, climate action in 2009 laid critical groundwork for potential breakthroughs in Congress and global negotiations in 2010. Yet with an issue as complex and political as climate change, turning groundwork into policy is a challenge.  2010 will undoubtedly be a pivotal year for climate change – but first it is instructive to take a look back at what happened in 2009 and how that shaped where we are today.

We captured these highlights in our annual Year-in-Review Newsletter – a useful compilation of 2009’s big climate change stories and related insights. The year’s major domestic action included passage of the landmark House climate and clean energy bill along with numerous Obama administration efforts to improve our climate and economy. These accomplishments included the stimulus bill’s $80 billion in clean energy-related funding and EPA actions, including the endangerment finding, the greenhouse gas reporting rule, and stricter auto-efficiency standards.

Copenhagen consumed international climate attention in 2009, culminating in the pre-dawn hours of December 19 when final touches were put on an accord directly brokered by President Obama and a handful of key developing country leaders. While many questions remain after Copenhagen, our summary of the conference provides a sound starting point for grasping what transpired at the year’s largest climate event.

The lead-up to 2009’s main events required a great deal of work, and some of the year’s highlights include the detailed Blueprint for Climate Action released one year ago this month by the influential business-NGO coalition U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). More industry leaders also showed support for mandatory climate action by joining our Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC). And efforts to reach business communities, employees, and families expanded through the Make An Impact program. In partnerships with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa and utility Entergy, we continue to provide individuals with strategies to save energy and money while protecting the environment. 

We continued to educate policy makers and opinion leaders, producing reports, analyses, and fact sheets on topics ranging from clean-energy technologies, climate science, competitiveness, and adaptation. Featuring expert insights and thoughtful opinions, we informed broad audiences about the immediate need for climate action. And our timely, relevant work moves forward in 2010 as we seek progress in addressing the most important global issue of our time.

Tom Steinfeldt is Communications Manager

Taking on the Transportation Sector

Nearing the first anniversary of the United States’ first greenhouse gas (GHG)  cap-and-trade program, members of the northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) joined with Pennsylvania to build on their effort to reduce GHG emissions. Governors from these eleven Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the framework for a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) by 2011.

The RGGI LCFS will operate in conjunction with national fuel economy standards that will increase the efficiency of passenger vehicles. A our new resource updates our comparison of fuel economy standards around the world and shows the fuel economy gains that will be made from these new standards. Click on the graph below for more detail.

In other climate and transportation news, we recently released a report on two modes of transportation that haven’t received a lot of attention from U.S. climate policymakers: the aviation and marine sectors. The report, Aviation and Marine Transportation: GHG Mitigation Potential and Challenges, finds that reductions in GHG emissions of more than 50 percent below business-as-usual (BAU) levels are possible by 2050. Though aviation and marine transportation currently represent only 3 percent of emissions, BAU CO2 emissions from the global aviation and marine transport sectors are projected to quadruple and nearly triple, respectively, by mid-century; controlling growth in these emissions will be an important part of reducing overall emissions from transportation.

Our President Eileen Claussen says, “Aviation and marine shipping are two of the fastest growing modes of transportation. Their greenhouse gas emissions are growing rapidly as well. To protect the climate, we need to reduce emissions across the entire economy. Aviation and marine shipping are part of the climate problem, and this report shows that they can be part of the solution.”

Tara Ursell is a Communications Associate

Biden’s Clean Energy Memo Shows Need for Carbon Price

Shortly before the new year, Vice President Biden issued a memo summarizing the federal government’s progress in promoting “clean energy,” primarily via the 2009 stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA). The Dec. 15 memo highlights significant incentives provided for efficiency, renewable electricity, biofuels, plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, and other low-carbon technologies. It summarizes where things stood one year ago (e.g., in terms of generating capacity, number of homes with smart meters) and where things are expected to be in the next few years.

The memo notes that ARRA provides $80 billion for clean energy investments. In terms of impacts, Vice President Biden claims, for example, that ARRA and other policies put the United States on track to double by 2012 non-hydro renewable electricity generation capacity compared to the level at the beginning of 2009. The memo says the rate of home energy efficiency retrofits will increase by an order of magnitude from 2009 to 2012 (to one million per year). While there are currently no commercial-scale carbon capture and storage projects in operation, the memo projects that there will be five by 2015. There are also evaluations of vehicle fuel economy, biofuels, nuclear power, electric vehicles, smart grid, and clean energy manufacturing.

While the clean energy advances touted by the Vice President are undoubtedly positive developments, the key policy for significantly reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—i.e., putting a price on carbon—is still being debated in Congress. The House passed a climate and energy bill that included a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in June, and the Senate continues deliberations on a similar bill.

In considering efforts to transition to a low-carbon future, it’s helpful to remember that climate change is a “tale of two market failures.” First, and most importantly, businesses and households do not face any price associated with emitting greenhouse gases despite the social costs (e.g., costs of damage to coastal communities from sea level rise, increase in costs due to reduction in water resources) associated with their contribution to dangerous climate change. Thus businesses and households lack a key financial incentive to invest in efficiency or lower-carbon energy sources. Second, while intellectual property protections help firms profit from their investments in new technology, the nature of innovation is such that the gains to society (i.e., to other businesses and consumers) from a single company’s investments in innovation generally exceed the returns to that company.  Thus businesses tend to under-invest in innovation.

With respect to fostering innovation, a summary from Harvard’s Belfer Center of U.S. Department of Energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) funding over time illustrates that the $7.5 billion in energy-related RD&D funding in ARRA is more than half as much as DOE received, cumulatively, in the five years from FY2005 through FY2009. 

We know that a combination of a market-based climate policy that puts a price on carbon (e.g., via a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program) to “pull” a portfolio of low-carbon technologies into the market coupled with incentives for low-carbon technology research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D)—i.e., policies to “push” low-carbon technologies into the market—make reducing greenhouse gas emissions less costly overall than a reliance on only “push” or “pull” policies alone.

The efforts outlined in the Vice President’s progress report are providing a much needed “push” for clean energy—such as government funding and loan guarantees to leverage private-sector investment in commercial-scale demonstrations of carbon capture and storage.  But, ultimately, the United States will not make the required significant, absolute reductions in emissions without the market “pull” created by an economy-wide carbon price.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow