Ups and downs: climate change in January 2010

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst, and Katie Kline A lot has happened over the last couple of weeks when it comes to climate change: 2009 was tied for the second warmest year on record, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski took aim at the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and China joined several other rapidly industrializing nations in agreeing to submit plans to cut emissions by the end of the month. Here is an overview of recent climate change issues: 2009 listed among second warmest years in recorded history According to NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) research, the average global temperature in 2009 was only a fraction of a degree cooler than in 2005, the warmest year on record; it joined five other years—1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007—as second warmest. Map showing increase in 2000-2009 average temperature compared to 1951-1980. Image Credit: NASA/GISS Data were gathered from more than 1,000 weather stations around the world, satellite observations of sea surface temperature and measurements from Antarctic research stations. A NASA video describes the analysis and implications of the data, and the possible causes of the temperature hike. And according to GISS and analyses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last decade was the warmest on record—average global temperatures have risen about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade over the last thirty years. James Hansen, GISS director, says in the NASA article: There’s always an interest in the annual temperature numbers and on a given year’s ranking, but usually that misses the point. There’s substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle. But when we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find that global warming is continuing unabated. Murkowski introduces resolution to prevent EPA action To keep EPA from moving forward with plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a “disapproval” resolution, which would retroactively veto the agency’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health. Murkowski’s resolution has little chance of succeeding—even if it makes it through Congress (Murkowski decided to use a disapproval resolution because it requires 51 Senate votes rather than 60, as an amendment would require), President Obama would still have the option of vetoing it. Senate Climate Bill Chances of a climate law in 2010 are slim. With unemployment at 10 percent, a still-weak economy and midterm elections on the way, the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress will likely focus almost entirely on creating jobs. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says...

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EPA biofuels rule: calculating the payback

The EPA released a report yesterday that proposes to change the rules of the biofuels game.  The report, titled “Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program,” examines the lifecycle of corn-for-ethanol practices and sets the “payback” period of carbon emissions for corn-for-ethanol fuel as 33 years. The payback period means that at first, corn-for-ethanol practices will be a net source of carbon into the atmosphere, as clearing farmland using fire and releasing carbon from soil create initial bursts of carbon release. Over time, however, the system will become self-sustaining and will become a net sink for carbon. Corn ethanol has been ranked as one of the lowest overall viable and sustainable forms of alternative fuels, and ecologists have shown that under our current system, almost all corn-based (both grain and cellulosic) cause environmental harm. Although environmentalists, including the National Resource Defense Council, have spoken up in favor of the EPA’s rule, the biofuels mandate still leaves a lot of wiggle room for revelation of corn ethanol’s true nature, especially under required production. For example, as posed by the Roger Pielke on the Prometheus blog, a question that remains is how long it will take to develop an even better biofuel standard than the current corn practices, which are not efficient. If this development time is less than 33 years, but the law mandates commitment to corn as a fuel source for at least 33 years, then the law will in effect create a net source of carbon.  As he puts it: “Does it make sense to incur very large increases in carbon dioxide emissions in the short-term under a promise of benefits to occur many decades into the future?” Read more about the issue on the Nature blog: The Great Beyond, at Reuters and, for the business side, the UK’s Guardian. EDIT: For a simple breakdown of the EPA’s scenarios and an interview with Tim Searchinger, a scientist who allegedly published the first paper showing that corn ethanol production increases greenhouse gas emissions, check out this Grist...

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ESA Policy News Update

Here are some highlights of the most recent Policy News Update, written by ESA’s Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. You can read the full update at ESA’s Policy News page. Details of Waxman-Markey climate bill: On March 31, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Ma.) released their draft climate change and energy bill — the “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” — reiterating plans to hold a final committee vote on the measure before the Memorial Day recess. The Policy News has an in-depth summary of the titles within the bill. Greenhouse gas endangerment finding: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an internal presentation that she plans to sign a document stating that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health — known as an “endangerment finding” — on April 16. The White House has begun its review of the report, which EPA sent over on March 20th. If finalized, it could trigger a series of Clean Air Act regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling opponents consider ocean zoning: The Obama administration plans to make drilling part of a broader energy strategy, so some opponents of offshore drilling are eyeing zoning plans as a way of protecting key marine resources and habitat from drilling, wind and wave energy projects. Senior members of the House Natural Resources Committee have said that zoning language should be incorporated into any new energy legislation brought up this year. Upcoming legislation: Bills considering mountaintop coal mining, black carbon reduction, illegal fishing, international science and technology coordination, e-waste reduction research and water research have been referred to or passed by their respective committees. Approved legislation: The House approved the Clean Energy Corps program as part of the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, an Obama-endorsed bill that would triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers while increasing the educational reward for service. President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, a bipartisan measure representing the most significant piece of conservation legislation in the last 15...

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EPA leaders talk water pollution at PBS documentary preview

PBS gave a sneak preview of its Frontline documentary, Poisoned Waters, today at the National Press Club. The featured speakers included EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the founding EPA Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus, who served under Richard Nixon. Both agreed that to really clean up our nation’s waterways, we need one thing: new legislation. “There is murkiness about the jurisdiction that states have within the clean water act,” said Jackson, who — see below — was filled with puns today. “Folks approach a particular wetland or stream and say ‘Do I need a permit?’ There is anything but clarity on when water means water.” In the documentary, journalist and Pulitzer prize winner Hendrick Smith explores the science and politics of the massive amounts of polluted runoff from industry, agriculture and suburban development that run into America’s waterways each year. At the sneak preview, Jackson spoke about agricultural runoff, which is one of the country’s biggest hurdles toward clean water. The documentary shows vivid images of overcrowded hog farms, chicken farms and cow ranches along riverways, pointing out that a major inland water polluter is animal manure. “As we all know, manure happens,” joked Jackson.  But she and Ruckelshaus both noted that a major obstacle toward passing legislation or reforming the Clean Water Act is to wake people up to the practices that contribute to damaged waterways — and to the idea that they are still, in fact, polluted. Ruckelshaus said that although 97 percent of people polled in the Puget Sound area feel a responsibility to keep it clean, more than 70 percent of them also think its waters are in excellent health. (They’re not.)  He stressed that the country needs rules to guide the conduct of individuals and companies in the way they interact with environment. Eventually, he thinks, the culture of quick-fixes needs to give way to real stewardship. “If we’re going to protect the environment for ourselves and all the living things we share the world with, we have to stay everlastingly at it,” he said. View a teaser for the documentary, which will air on PBS April 21 (check local listings),...

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The EPA’s Most Wanted

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking a leaf out of the FBI’s book in their fight against “environmental crimes.” EPA has established a Most Wanted list, including mug shots, of offenders who have been charged with violating environmental laws or regulations. The list was established to put a spotlight on environmental crime and to signal that the agency is taking these crimes very seriously. Some examples of offenses are: – Selling hundreds of asbestos inspection licenses to untrained workers – Smuggling ozone-destroying coolants – Building a secret pipeline to funnel pollutants into a tributary of the Mississippi River EPA has 180 armed agents patrolling the country for these and other criminals, according to Sunday’s New York Times story.  There are currently 21 fugitives on the list. Check out their mug shots on the EPA Fugitives page and, if you spot one,  inform your local police. But, however egregious their crimes, the page urges that you “do not attempt to apprehend any of these individuals.” Good...

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Obama to weigh Clean Air Act emissions regulation

The EPA sent a finding to the White House on Friday that should surprise no ecologists: that greenhouse gases are pollutants that endanger the public welfare. What might surprise ecologists is that it was sent at all. Until the final days of the Bush administration, the executive branch dragged its feet on a 2007 edict by the Supreme Court that they decide whether to use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions.  Finally they punted, saying last July that they would instead seek extensive public comment on the threat of greenhouse gases to human welfare. Now, with the information it received on Friday, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has said in the past that he’d prefer to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through legislation, probably within an energy bill that imposes an emissions cap. Bill Kovacs, the vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thinks that now is the wrong time to bring up the issue again. If the administration decides to move forward with the Clean Air Act, he says, then any infrastructure project, including the ones just beginning under the stimulus bill, will be subject to extensive review for greenhouse gas emissions. A situation like this could be disastrous for the economy, he says. A spokesperson for the EPA said that if accepted, the proposal would still need public hearings and comment before it would become final and “would not impose any new regulatory burdens on any projects,” according to the Washington Post. Whatever the outcome, the EPA’s move highlights a very different attitude at the agency since January 20. Read the Washington Post article...

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Obama’s science appointees

President-elect Barack Obama selected advisors and cabinet members this week who will shape the next administration’s policies on ecological issues. Announcing the appointees in his weekly radio address, Obama said, “The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s about protecting free and open inquiry.” Here’s a partial list of appointees. White House science advisor: Harvard University physicist John Holdren. The science advisor is the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which manages energy and environmental policy. Holdren is known internationally for his expertise on energy and climate change. Head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. Lubchenco, who served as ESA President from 1992-1993, is an outspoken advocate for scientists to become more actively involved in public policy discussions. Her appointment will likely turn NOAA’s focus away from commercial fishing interests and toward conservation measures to protect and sustain ecosystems. Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change – or, as some have coined the position, “energy czar”: former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner. Browner has guided Obama’s transition team on energy and environmental policy and expressed support for EPA’s authority to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The role of the energy czar is not yet fully clear, but will include coordinating between agencies to create jobs, improve energy security and combat climate change. Other energy and environment appointees: •    EPA Administrator: Lisa Jackson, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection director. Jackson will be tasked with restoring the image of EPA, which has been accused of becoming too closely aligned with industry. •    Interior Secretary: Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colorado) •    Energy Secretary: Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics •    Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality: Nancy Sutley, Los Angeles deputy mayor for energy and...

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Join EPA’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information

EPA invites you to join EPA’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information. Today, June 9, begins a week of on-line dialogue with our environmental information partners to hear your ideas about how we can enhance information access.

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