Addressing Climate Change in a Changing Political Climate

RTAblog_2013_0625_CoalPowerPlantPresident Obama addressed the issue of climate change in a policy speech at George Washington University yesterday afternoon. This collection of notes is intended to provide more detail than the media coverage and responses to the President’s speech.

What We Suspect
The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere has been rising since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere have increased significantly since we figured out how to burn fossil fuels at a large scale in the mid-1800’s. Soil and ice samples show recent GHG levels are much higher that in the thousands of years prior.

Many scientists and experts who study our climate and weather have expressed concern that increasing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) will contribute to a warming of our climate by trapping increasing levels of solar radiation in our atmosphere. That warming of our climate may contribute to higher ocean levels, more powerful storms, droughts, heat waves and other circumstances that will challenge our fragile existence.

How We Measure
The US Department of Commerce operates the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA has a monitoring site at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by water so they aren’t downwind from emission sources that may skew measurements of  carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG levels taken at the observatory.

When people talk about the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, they’re probably referencing the measurements from NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory. The CO2 emissions are published each month. The following is the June 2013 chart:


The dashed red line is the monthly mean values. The black line is the same, corrected for the average seasonal cycle.

Major Contributors
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and publishes data. GHGs include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. Carbon dioxide makes up 84% of US GHG emissions. This EPA chart shows carbon dioxide emissions by sector in 2011:


From left to right on the chart, the sectors represented by columns are are U.S territories, commercial, residential, industrial, transportation and electricity generation. If we add the first four CO2 producing segments together, we find they produce 78.7% of the CO2 emissions from transportation. You can also see the majority of electrical generation comes from burning coal.

How do residential and commercial buildings produce CO2 and other GHG emissions? You can find descriptions for emission sources for each sector on the EPA’s GHG overview web page.

The following chart of GHG emissions shows year-to-year changes from 1991 to 2011. You can see a drop in GHG emissions starting in 2008 that appears to coincide with reduced economic activity – our slow recovery from the housing bubble. We’re producing significantly less GHGs than in 2007.


The following chart of 2011 CO2 emissions shows the top source, by far, is direct combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation. According to the EPA’s “Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011”:

“CO2 from fossil fuel combustion has accounted for approximately 78% of…emissions since 1990, and is approximately 79% of… emissions in 2011. Emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion have increased at an average annual rate of 0.5% from 1990 to 2011.”

Iron and steel production were the number three producer of CO2. Cement production was the number five producer of CO2. Lime production was the number six producer of CO2. Other construction industry related activities like aluminum, glass and zinc production fall in the top twenty producers of CO2 emissions yet they don’t come close to the top use for electricity generation and transportation, even when they’re all combined.


That’s why there’s such a focus on energy efficiency in our buildings (houses are buildings), development of renewable energy resources for our buildings and increased fuel economy standards for our vehicles.

What We Don’t Know
Although President Obama said, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” (at 8:38 in his speech), no one knows what level of CO2 in our atmosphere will cause irreversible damage to our planet. There may not be any particular level since the planet has repeatedly healed itself through cooling and warming periods. That’s probably the most frustrating part of this issue – we have to make our best guess in a political climate.

Changing Political Climate
Our political climate has changed because of the internet. Social media sites and blogs allow content producers to focus on specific issues and content consumers can choose which of the messages we want to receive. That’s given special interest groups a direct line of communication to the public – they don’t have to use the shotgun approach of traditional advertising models.

When you think about it, that’s a huge difference from days past when politicians gave us information. Now we’re able to be as informed (if not more) than our elected representatives.

Our direction connections with special interest groups can be helpful and empowering though they can also be used to keep people in a frenzy over an issue, distract from the real focus and spread misinformation.

Brinksmanship (Bad Behavior)
What’s the definition of a “climate scientist”? Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society. In his May 2013 TEDxAtlanta talk on climate change, titled “Slaying the Zombies of Climate Science”, Dr. Shepherd led the audience to believe that anyone who publishes a paper on climate can contribute to the discussion as an expert on climate science (at 17:30 in his talk).

Dr. Shepherd (at 1:37 in his talk) and President Obama (at 7:36 in his speech) both suggest that 97% of climate scientists are united in their beliefs about climate change. If there’s no consensus definition of climate scientist, how can we assert that 97% of an undefined group agrees? Regardless of your position on climate change, it seems reasonable that we shouldn’t site data that’s subjective – injecting politics is a disservice to those people trying to have a candid discussion about the issue.

Special interest groups have taken brinksmanship to a whole new level through their polarizing statements. President Obama has been battered and beaten in social media and blog posts from groups on both sides of the issue. Each has been trying to prod him into addressing its agenda for climate change.

They include attack dogs like that publish article after article after article to push their agenda. recently posted an article about Princeton University professor Peter Signer suggesting that population control may be necessary to address climate change. Posts from groups like Think Progress are countered by posts from groups like The Heartland Institute in such a way that the average person doesn’t know who to believe.

At the heart of the argument is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere that’s the breaking point. Groups like advocate for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere to less than 350 parts per million (ppm). They raise all sorts of cautions for CO2 levels higher than 350ppm though, as you saw earlier, we’re currently at a CO2 level of about 400ppm. Though no one knows what the brink of irreversible CO2 levels really is, that hasn’t stopped the speculation.

Ownership of an Issue
The PewResearch Global Attitudes Project released a survey report late last week. It titled the survey, “Climate Change and Financial Instability Seen as Top Global Threats” though those two issues only emerge when averaging concerns in all countries surveyed. For Americans, terrorism and financial instability are by far the top threats. According to the survey, climate change comes in sixth among American concerns – behind “China’s power & influence”.

This gets back to the points Dr. Shepherd made in his TEDxAtlanta talk. He says (at 2:00 in his talk) the grand challenge in his field is overcoming the disconnect between overwhelming concern among “climate scientists” and 40% concern among US citizens (according to the PewResearch study). Though he tries to attribute the disconnect to “zombie theories” and a lack of “climate literacy”, there’s a much more simple explanation eloquently summed up by Amory Lovins when he says, “No one washes a rental car.”

We don’t take care of things we don’t own. How do we take ownership of a global issue, especially if we’re just citizens with no government affiliation other than voting? We don’t.

A member of the Georgia Public Service Commission has suggested that unilateral steps to address climate change is like expecting to have a “no peeing” section in a swimming pool – we’re all connected in the same atmosphere. The CO2 levels measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory are emitted from all nations, not just the largest economies. So how can we be motivated to address climate change?

President Obama’s Plan
The White House has published an infographic of President Obama’s action plans for climate change. If you watched his speech and took notes, you probably recorded the following “action items” (in order of mention):

  1. President Obama has directed the EPA to establish emissions limits for new and existing power plants.
  2. President Obama has directed the Department of the Interior to green light enough private renewable energy capacity on public lands to power 6 million homes by 2020.
  3. The Department of Defense will install 3gw of renewable generation – equivalent to about 3m tons of coal.
  4. The President’s budget calls for an end to tax breaks for big oil companies. The President’s budget also calls for investment in (private) clean energy companies.
  5. The federal government will consume 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

President Obama also mentioned the following:

  1. The President called for an end to public financing of coal plants overseas… unless they’re necessary.
  2. The President called for an inclusive, flexible agreement on carbon emissions among nations (at the next UN conference on climate change).

Though his speech was mostly a re-hash of topics already covered, he said (at 40:15 in his speech), “The actions I’ve announced today should send a strong signal to the world that america intends to take bold action to reduce carbon pollution. We will continue to lead by the power of our example because that’s what the united states has always done.”

He also said (at 41:30 in his speech), “Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgement of  special interests and well-connects donors and more concerned with the judgement of posterity.”

The President’s comments on limiting the emissions of new and existing power plants was the only bright spot for people who want significant action to address carbon emissions. Though he mentioned carbon markets, he did not advocate for them and he didn’t make any commitments to international agreements.

His effort at establishing ownership of the issue (as a motivation to take action) was to repeatedly suggest that we should take steps to reduce carbon emissions to address health issues and rising costs related to climate change.

The More Important Topic
President Obama’s speech seemed to get a very cool response from environmentalists who had high hopes only to discover they’ve heard the language before. For example, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund summed up President Obama’s promise to curb emissions from power plants by saying that “It’s the biggest opportunity we’ve ever had to slash carbon pollution from power plants” though he also added, “This could be a big part of the President’s legacy. Now we’re just starting to write these regulations so I don’t want to say the legacy is cemented yet.”

We think the best way forward on this issue is to focus on energy independence since we already have ownership – we’ve each been directly effected and it’s relatively easy to explain. For example, we’ve seen across-the-board increases on construction materials from companies passing along an increase in fuel prices to consumers. When fuel and energy prices have been particularly volatile, the increases have been enough to break project budgets.

There are too many specific reasons to achieve energy independence for us to endure pep rallies around vague political visions. The steps to energy independence will solve the vast majority of our climate change challenges. The first step is doing a better job as consumers – to make energy independence a reality, we have to use our purchasing power to vote for better technologies and products. In many cases that will mean paying a higher first cost to save much more money on operation and maintenance.

Danger Without Diversity
In his speech, President Obama talked about natural gas as the “bridge fuel” for our economy. You may remember our “What Did You Miss at the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference?” post from last year. We noted that John Sommerhalder, Chairman and President of AGL Resources raised his concern that the US not bet exclusively on natural gas. That would be another risk to our energy independence.

He noted that since 1995, approximately 90% of power plants constructed are powered by natural gas. He advocated for keeping energy prices stable by maintaining diversity in energy sources and investing in infrastructure to account for more than expected peak loads so distribution isn’t the limiting factor.

We can also achieve diversity by not relying on central power production. Distributed production, from multiple sources, gives us more options for more fuel sources and reduces our dependence on fragile infrastructure.

The 800-Pound Gorilla
We think the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) structure needs to be changed. It’s one of few government agencies not headed by a bi-partisan panel. Having one person at the head of the EPA makes it easier to politicize the agency. The result is inconsistent enforcement from one administration to the next.

If President Obama is serious about reforms to address climate change and he’s willing to work with anyone, as he said in his speech, he should demonstrate his commitment by reforming the EPA. If President Obama is serious about supporting innovation and creating jobs in the energy sector of our economy, he should protect business by reforming the EPA.

We think it’s too important not to reform the agency responsible for enforcing environmental regulations. Having a bi-partisan panel should dramatically increase transparency at the agency and reduce opportunities to use the agency to inappropriately influence private markets. Both of those things are in the best interest of the American people and our environment.

The “X-factor”
As usual, the  is the unknown this discussion is our court system. For example, the day before President Obama’s speech on climate change, Supreme Court of the United States announced that it would review a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision on the EPA’s cross-state pollution rule.

Environmental groups have been using the court system to get stricter regulations through a “sue and settle” tactic. Georgia’s Attorney General and U.S House member Doug Collins are advocating for legislation that would limit a regulatory agency’s ability to impose new regulations as a settlement of a lawsuit. The legislation is H.R. 1493, the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2013.

Where to Get Involved
If you’d like to get involved in addressing issues like climate change, please consider connecting with your state public policy forum. The Georgia Public Policy Forum is an excellent example of a non-partisan think tank that gives Georgians the opportunity to come together to discuss issues and develop solutions. Those solutions can be shared with government representatives and other think tanks.

In Conclusion
We’ll conclude with two videos. The first video (27 minutes) is from the Rocky Mountain Institute. It’s Amory Lovins’ plan for solving US energy problems. If you’re frustrated with a lack of answers to the issues raised by Barack Obama and other presidents for decades, you’ll probably enjoy this presentation.

The second video is a follow-up to Fred Krupp’s comments and an attempt to end on a lighter note – we’ll have to see what actually happens following President Obama’s speech. As Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has points out in the following video, American presidents have a history of advocating for energy policy without making any progress.

Please Join Our Discussion
Thanks for reading our 2685 word manifesto! Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions!

First image (railroad cars full of coal on their way to a coal-fired power plant) by wsilver used under creative commons license.

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