Wednesday, October 03, 2007


The administration of George W. Bush seems to have discovered a new interest in the issue of climate change, starting just before the G8 summit last summer in Germany. Common wisdom holds that this interest is either shallow or, more cynically, an effort to derail ongoing international negotiations via distraction. But when President Bush proposed that a new international framework for climate change be developed by the end of 2008, his last year in office, he had no trouble getting other world leaders to agree enthusiastically, and a first meeting is scheduled for this week in Washington.

The dynamics of late-term lame-duck presidencies (i.e., those ineligible to run again for office) suggest that the climate issue is indeed ripe for action at the end of 2008, especially if a Democrat is elected in November. These dynamics give at least some reason for thinking that action on climate change under the Bush Administration may not be so far-fetched a possibility.

It is quite likely that the political use of late-term regulatory action is one lesson that the Bush Administration surely learned from its predecessors. In 1995, under the Clinton Administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed a report for Congress on mercury emissions, finding 1.6 million Americans potentially at risk from food contaminated by mercury pollution. But the EPA refused to release the report to Congress or to the public, claiming that it needed further scientific review. This drew the ire of several members of Congress, who argued that the report was being withheld because of industry pressure. One of the leading emitters of mercury into the environment is coal-fired power plants.

The EPA report was finally released in December, 1997, and the Clinton Administration continued its policy of inaction, if not obstruction, on mercury regulation. That is, until December 14, 2000, when the EPA abruptly announced a proposed rule that would cut mercury emissions by an impressive 90 percent.

What accounted for the sudden change from years of foot-dragging? One factor that certainly seems to have played a role is that on December 13, 2000 - one day earlier - the US Supreme Court decided that George W. Bush would be the 43rd president of the United States. The EPA could propose drastic regulations on mercury knowing that whatever negative political consequences would ensue, they would be borne by the incoming Bush Administration.

The proposed mercury regulations were a perfect political trap for the incoming president. The 90 percent reduction would be drastic enough to impose costs on important political constituencies. But if the regulations were to be scaled back, it would ensure headlines like the following: "Bush Administration Rolls Back Clinton Mercury Guidelines," which also would cast the administration in a bad light. Regardless of the merits of mercury regulation, the outgoing administration had guaranteed political problems for its political opponents....

There is little doubt that the Bush Administration felt the political sting of not only the proposed mercury regulation but other last-minute actions by the Clinton Administration as well, such as those on arsenic and the International Criminal Court.

So if a Democrat is elected in November 2008, which appears likely, it seems eminently plausible that the Bush Administration would help the new administration get off to a running start by leaving them with a proposed rule, under the EPA, for the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Even the possibility of such a late-hour action is probably enough for the declared Democratic presidential candidates to be very careful about calling for dramatic action on climate change, lest - if elected - they find themselves getting what they asked for.

Because no one really yet knows how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by any significant amount, a strong proposed rule on climate change issued in the final months of the Bush Administration would create all sorts of political difficulties for the next president, just as those late-hour rules proposed by President Clinton did for President Bush. If reducing emissions indeed proves to be easy, as some have suggested, President Bush would get credit for taking decisive action. If it proves difficult and costly, as many suggest, then the next administration would bear the political backlash.

Common wisdom that the Bush Administration will not act meaningfully on climate change may in the end prove to be correct. But, at the same time, remember that lame ducks are unpredictable creatures.



This is from the NYT! A sign of things to come?

Soaring food prices, driven in part by demand for ethanol made from corn, have helped slash the amount of food aid the government buys to its lowest level in a decade, possibly resulting in more hungry people around the world this year. The United States, the world's dominant donor, has purchased less than half the amount of food aid this year that it did in 2000, according to new data from the Department of Agriculture. "The people who are starving and have to rely on food aid, they will suffer," Jean Ziegler, who reports to the United Nations on hunger and food issues, said in an interview this week.

Corn prices have fallen in recent months, but are still far higher than they were a year ago. Demand for ethanol has also indirectly driven the rising price of soybeans, as land that had been planted with soybeans shifted to corn. And wheat prices have skyrocketed, in large part because drought hurt production in Australia, a major producer, economists say.

The higher food prices have not only reduced the amount of American food aid for the hungry, but are also making it harder for the poorest people to buy food for themselves, economists and advocates for the hungry say. "We fear the steady rise of food prices will hit those on the front lines of hunger the hardest," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program. The United States is the biggest contributor to the agency. She warned that food aid spending would have to rise just to keep feeding the same number of people. But the appropriations bill for the coming year now moving through Congress does not promise any significant increases in the food aid budget.

The impact of rising food prices on food aid is part of a broader debate about the long-term impact on the world's poorest people of using food crops to make ethanol and other biofuels, a strategy that rich countries like the United States hope will eventually reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil.



BIOFUELS firms are demanding the British government and the European Union take action to stop American rivals exploiting subsidies to flood the European markets with cut-price fuel. The Renewable Energy Association, an industry group, contacted the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson in recent weeks. The European Biodiesel Board is also lobbying the EU to protest to the US government.

Since the start of the year, American biodiesel groups have flooded the European markets with cheap fuel. The volumes are so large that US imports are thought to account for more than 50% of demand for biodiesel. European biodiesel groups, including Biofuels Corporation, the UK's largest producer, and listed group D1 Oils, have warned that the glut of cheap American imports could drive many firms out of business.

American companies have been exploiting federal government subsidies and rebates offered by European countries including Britain. Under the US scheme, biodiesel producers are paid a subsidy of $1 per gallon, or 11p per litre. But the groups can also claim 20p per litre in excise duty rebates by importing biofuels to the UK ? in effect "double dipping" on tax relief. The American fuel, known as B99, is a blend of 99% soya biodiesel and 1% mineral diesel. It is being sold at about $860 per tonne, far cheaper than the $1,114 price of raw rapeseed oil before it has been refined to create biodiesel. Refining typically costs $125 a tonne.

The European biofuels industry is demanding the EU looks at measures including placing duties on US imports. In America, Congress is considering a bill that would only allow firms to claim the subsidy on biofuels used in the country. However, it is feared the bill could take more than a year to become law.

According to a recent report by accountants Ernst & Young, US biofuel imports to Europe are expected to reach more than 500,000 tonnes by the end of this year. In Germany, some biodiesel refiners have cut their output by 50%, though there are fears this could lead to an 80% fall by the end of the year.



Most crops grown in the United States and Europe to make "green" transport fuels actually speed up global warming because of industrial farming methods, says a report by Nobel prize winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen. The findings could spell particular concern for alternative fuels derived from rapeseed, used in Europe, which the study concluded could produce up to 70 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than conventional diesel.

The study suggested scientists and farmers focused on crops, which required less intensive farming methods, to produce better benefits for the environment.

Biofuels are derived from plants which absorb the planet-warming greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as they grow, and so are meant as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. But the new study shows that some biofuels actually release more greenhouse gases than they save, because of the fertiliser used in modern farming practices.

The problem greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, is more famous as the dentists' anaesthetic "laughing gas," and is about 300 times more insulating than the commonest man-made greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. "The nitrous oxide emission on its own can cancel out the overall benefit," co-author Professor Keith Smith told Reuters in a phone interview.

The results, published in "Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions," were based on the finding that fertiliser use on farms was responsible for three to five times more such greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought.

They cast further doubts on the credibility of biofuels as a climate cure, following the revelation of other unintended side effects such as rainforest clearance and raised food prices, from competition with forests and food for land. Brazil and the United States produce most of the world's bioethanol, as a substitute for gasoline, while the European Union is the main supplier of biodiesel.


Using biodiesel derived from rapeseed would produce between 1 and 1.7 times more greenhouse gas than using conventional diesel, the study estimated. Biofuels derived from sugar cane, as in Brazil, fared better, producing between 0.5 and 0.9 times as much greenhouse gases as gasoline, it found. Maize is the main biofuels feedstock used in the United States, and produced between 0.9 and 1.5 times the global warming effect of conventional gasoline, it said. "As it's used at the moment, bioethanol from maize seems to be a pretty futile exercise," Smith said.

The study did not account for the extra global warming effect of burning fossil fuels in biofuel manufacture, or for the planet-cooling effect of using biofuel by-products as a substitute for coal in electricity generation. "Even if somebody decides that our numbers are too big ... if you add together the undoubted amount of nitrous oxide that is formed, plus the fossil fuel usage, with most of the biofuels of today you are not going to get any benefit," Smith said.

However, the study did not condemn all biofuels, suggesting that scientists and farmers should focus on crops needing little fertiliser, and harvesting methods that were not energy intensive. "In future if you use low nitrogen demanding crops, and low impact agriculture, then we could get a benefit," Smith said. The study singled out grasses and woody coppice species -- like willows and poplars -- as crops with potentially more favourable impacts on the climate



One of the major concerns today is the rise in global temperatures, which are generally thought to be caused by the release of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. As a result, a growing proportion of the political agenda is occupied by the challenge of implementing policies and strategies in time to mitigate the possible consequences of global warming.

A key element in assessing climate change is the powerful computer simulations used to demonstrate how complex, interacting forcing agents influence the evolution of the climate system. Although the models are built around a long-accumulated understanding of the underlying physical processes and dynamics - and are compared with historical and contemporary observations - there are still many aspects that are less well understood. There is, therefore, a range of views about the reliability of using these models to make credible projections of our future climate.

At the seminar, two leading climate physicists, Prof. Richard S Lindzen, Alfred P Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Prof. Alan J Thorpe, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), described the current status of climate-model prediction from rather different viewpoints. Prof. Lindzen explained the limitations of climate models and outlined why attempts to attribute global temperature rise to an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were flawed. He maintained that there was no sound evidence that temperatures would rise substantially in the future. Prof. Thorpe based his presentation on the huge weight of evidence in the scientific literature, showing that current and future warming of the climate is caused by the human input of greenhouse gases. He presented a variety of evidence supporting the validity of current global models on which current concerns about global warming are based. He also stressed that more research was being done and needed to refine the details further.

The seminar was chaired by Michael Meacher, MP for Oldham West and Royton, and a former Minister of State for the Environment. Prof. Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey and Piers Corbyn of WeatherAction joined the speakers in answering questions from the audience.



The Lockwood paper was designed to rebut Durkin's "Great Global Warming Swindle" film. It is a rather confused paper -- acknowledging yet failing to account fully for the damping effect of the oceans, for instance -- but it is nonetheless valuable to climate atheists. The concession from a Greenie source that fluctuations in the output of the sun have driven climate change for all but the last 20 years (See the first sentence of the paper) really is invaluable. And the basic fact presented in the paper -- that solar output has in general been on the downturn in recent years -- is also amusing to see. Surely even a crazed Greenie mind must see that the sun's influence has not stopped and that reduced solar output will soon start COOLING the earth! Unprecedented July 2007 cold weather throughout the Southern hemisphere might even be the first sign that the cooling is happening. And the fact that warming plateaued in 1998 is also a good sign that we are moving into a cooling phase. As is so often the case, the Greenies have got the danger exactly backwards. See my post of 7.14.07 and a very detailed critique here for more on the Lockwood paper

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