Global warming will accelerate without climate deal, Merkel warns
German chancellor says world leaders must reach a deal on limiting greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible
Reuters guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 17 July 2012 11.33 BST
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned on Monday that global warming will accelerate at a dramatic rate unless leaders reach a deal on limiting greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.
After marathon talks in Durban last December, countries agreed to forge a new deal by 2015 that would for the first time force all the biggest polluters to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Critics said at the time, however, the plan was too timid to slow global warming.
"Time is of the essence," Merkel told an international conference in Berlin, where delegates from more than 30 countries are preparing for a major UN climate conference at the end of the year in Qatar.
Attendees are discussing how to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2C.
Merkel's comments came a day after Germany's environment minister questioned the country's ability to reach its own climate goals, in an interview with newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
These include introducing 1m electric cars and reducing energy usage by 10% by 2020. As of the beginning of 2012, only 4,541 electric cars were in use, according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority.
Canada energy industry told to improve its green reputation
A Canadian Senate report has warned the industry it must improve its environmental performance
Reuters guardian.co.uk, Friday 20 July 2012 11.35 BST
Canada will not be able to fully benefit from huge resources of oil and natural gas unless the energy industry improves its environmental record, a Canadian Senate report concluded on Thursday.
The report, from the Energy Committee of the Senate, said Canada should do more to persuade the world it was developing its resources responsibly.
"Canada must demonstrate its commitment to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions on a national scale," it said, adding that firms working in the oil sands industry had to improve their environmental performance.
Canada has the world's third largest proven reserves of crude and the Conservative government wants to turn the nation into an energy superpower.
But greenhouse gas emissions keep rising and look set to spike even higher as development picks up in the oil rich tar sands. Activists have condemned the Conservative government for not doing more to protect the environment and Canada regularly wins "Fossil of the day" awards from environmental groups.
"We're in this incredibly enviable position in Canada ... but this is at great risk and to stay in this position a lot of things are going to have to change," said David Angus, head of the Senate's energy committee.
Ottawa is particularly keen to speed up development of the tar sands, which contain 170 billion barrels of crude and are the world's third-largest oil resource.
Angus, complaining about the fossil of the day awards, said "Canada has been portrayed as the bad guy" when it came to energy and the environment.
"It's kind of depressing ... What we want to do is have the Canadian brand celebrated and so we've got to clean up our act, of course we do," he told a news conference.
The report will now be presented to the government for its reaction. The Conservative administration will find it hard to completely dismiss the document, since Angus and the majority of senators are Conservatives.
Canada abandoned the Kyoto protocol on climate change last year and committed instead to more modest cuts in emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Booming development in the oil sands means Canada may not meet even these lower emissions targets.
Canada's reputation suffered another blow last week when US regulators savaged Enbridge Inc for the way it handled a spill from an ageing pipeline in Michigan in 2010. There have already been several spills in Canada this year.
"This is old infrastructure and it needs to be upgraded," Angus said. "We built the pipelines originally and we were way ahead of the curve. Now we've fallen behind and we have got to get caught up and it is a serious problem for the country."
Environmental activists and aboriginal groups oppose an Enbridge plan to build a 731-mile pipeline from the tar sands to the Pacific, from where it could be shipped to China and other Asian markets.
Opponents say the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is too risky.
The Office of Federal Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver was not immediately available for comment on the Senate report.
Poland is claiming €7 billion worth of carbon trading allowances for coal power plants that do not exist
Arthur Neslen for EurActiv, part of the Guardian Environment Network guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 July 2012 14.15 BST
At least one of the coal plants for which Poland is requesting €7 billion of free carbon allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS)'s little-known '10c derogation' does not exist, a EurActiv investigation has found.
Poland has applied for €33-million worth of free allowances for the Łęczna coal plant, near the Ukrainian border, but there is no visible evidence that any construction work has begun at the sleepy greenfield site.
Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat MEP and environment spokesman, said he was "outraged" at the lack of work at Łęczna. "The dirty tricks brigade is out and there's an attempt to cheat the system," he told EurActiv.
"I think there will be enormous anger if the European Commission finds ways of stretching or re-interpreting the rules to accommodate Poland," he added.
Under EU rules, exemptions from the ETS until 2020 can only be granted to power plants if their investment process was "physically initiated" before 31 December 2008, and if their greenhouse gas permits were issued before 30 June 2011.
A Polish government official told EurActiv that the Łęczna coal plant fell into a category of sites for which "construction is in progress", even if the work was not completed.
But a 20 kilometre drive around the backwaters of Łęczna's Stara Wieś-Stasin site on 5 July revealed a rural landscape of green fields, crop allotments, and country paths.
No buildings, installations or other power plant-related activity were evident at the coordinates for the installation submitted by the GDF Suez group to the regional authorities in June 2011.
"It's not certain if there will be a plant," one local farmer at the site told EurActiv. "We are still working the land like normal."
He and another farmer were growing maize on the site, where the two 800 megawatt installations were to be built.
The environmental group Client Earth, which is challenging the legality of the Łęczna plant and 12 others, says that the Polish authorities did not even apply for building permits at sites such as Łęczna before the December 2008 deadline.
EurActiv has also seen photos of the Północ installation, for which Poland is claiming €98.3 million of free carbon allowances, taken in November 2010. They too show empty fields with no apparent installations or other construction works.
"When you see an empty field without any other works there, it is obvious that the process was not physically initiated by the cut-off date three years ago, and the Polish application is not valid," said Marcin Stoczkiewicz, a lawyer for Client Earth.
"The law has been broken," he added.
One well-placed source at the Polish environment ministry said that the government could not check all 187 '10c' installation venues, and that if the European Commission ruled that some companies had breached the application rules, Warsaw would accept it.
Poland's list of proposed power plants had been compiled without checking the eligibility criteria, the source added.
Officials from Warsaw's environment and economics ministries were unable to comment directly on the situation at Łęczna but the Polish environment spokeswoman, Magda Sikorska, did add one caveat.
"The 10c [derogation] is not [being] used as a negotiation tool in any other field of European policy," she said.
10c derogation intent
When the EU adopted the climate and energy package in December 2008, the 10c derogation was included as an exception to the rule that from 2013 onwards, all allowances for power companies should be auctioned rather than granted for free.
The derogation was intended to smooth the path of the 10 new EU members on their way to Europe's futuristic low-carbon economy, without giving them an unfair competitive advantage.
Power plants that were physically planned and initiated before 2009 could be eligible for allowances, it said, so long as the resulting funds were used to modernise, diversify, and clean up electricity generation.
Applicant states just had to issue greenhouse gas permits to such installations before a 30 June 2011 deadline, to prevent an open-ended stream of central and east European coal plants gaining free allocations that could distort the European power market.
Exchange of letters
However, the Polish authorities appeared to misunderstand this point, according to an exchange of letters between the EU's then-environment commissioner Stavros Dimas and Poland's economics minister Waldemar Pawlak, which EurActiv has seen.
In a missive dated 11 March 2009, Pawlak complained of "contradictory wording" in the ETS and requested an amendment to it, which would extend the free allocations of carbon allowances for 10c applicants.
Commissioner Dimas replied that as the legislation had already passed into law, "it is no longer possible to make any changes to the wording of the legislation".
Poland's subsequent transposition of the ETS into national law in June 2011 contained an Article 50, authorising 'greenhouse gas permits' without CO2 emissions rights to be issued, in stark contradiction to the EU's rules.
Such permits could apply to 10c installations which had not been built, like Łęczna.
"The European Commission must shine a light on the Polish government's fraudulent implementation of the ETS directive," said Julia Michalak, a policy officer for Climate Action Network Europe, an environmental NGO.
Poland produces 95% of its electricity from coal, and is currently blocking the EU's low carbon roadmap which aims for an 80-95% cut in the continent's CO2 emissions by 2050.
Krysztof Bolesta, the advisor to Poland's environment minister, Martin Korolec, told EurActiv that Warsaw would continue to veto any solely European 2050 targets because "we need a policy that protects industry".
"If it's a global [CO2 reductions] deal or a carbon tax at the [EU] borders, both solutions are fine," he said.
On the 10c issue, Polish officials stress that all monies raised through the derogation will be reinvested in new coal plants that deliver a substantial claimed CO2 saving on the installations they are replacing.
Last week, the European Commission conditionally ruled that three 10c applicants – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania – could temporarily continue to receive free allocations despite claims by environmentalists of irregularities in the Czech application in particular.
But because the ETS covers all of Europe's major installations, Chris Davies called for Brussels to draw a red line there.
"There should be one rule for the whole of Europe," he insisted, "no exceptions, no ifs and buts, no competitive advantage being gained by the worst polluters. There has to be a level playing field."
Polish officials privately complain that the Commission "is keeping its cards close to its chest" about its 10c application but a decision is thought to be imminent.
"The analysis will be concluded soon," an EU spokesman told EurActiv.
A couple of weeks back I chaired a debate at Chatham House, the London-based think tank, on a question that I'd been asking myself for a while.
Rio+20: Green Growth or Greenwash? was the title.
As I outlined at the beginning of the debate, it was almost as if Rio de Janeiro hosted two completely different UN sustainable development summits simultaneously in late June.
One was attended by the Brazilian government, several UN institutions, corporations, and people who advise corporations on issues such as supply chain reform.
Their summit was a great success - pledging money for various sustainability initiatives, setting up new partnerships, saving multilateralism and proving that the private sector has raced ahead of governments in their desire for a greener, more equitable future.
Groups such as Oxfam and WWF were evidently at a different event.
Theirs achieved virtually nothing, with Oxfam UK chief Barbara Stocking, for example, saying "it absolutely did not" seize what had been billed as a "once in a generation opportunity" to put the global development path on a sustainable track.
At the time, along with just about every other journalist I spoke to, my impression was more in tune with WWF and Oxfam than the glass half-full contingent.
With hindsight, did I miss something?
Let's begin with the summit organisation itself - properly the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. For more than a year beforehand, organisers were clear that this would not be one of those events that delivered a big, binding international agreement on anything.
Rather, they said, we should look at the commitments that governments, companies and civil society groups were prepared to make.
And make commitments they did. The UN summary claims "more than 700". Activist blowing soap bubbles Activists felt they were blowing bubbles in the wind
Sounds a lot - so what are they?
A majority fall in the category of education. Let me pull one out at random from near the top of the list, from Alfred State College in the US.
"Over the next year, we intend to complete an assessment of our sustainability performance using the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (Stars)," it reads.
"We will use the results of this assessment to prepare a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes quantitative targets. Stars will also provide a mechanism for tracking and communicating our progress on sustainability over time."
Near the bottom - for no better reason than I went there once - I select the University of Tampere.
"The University of Tampere has launched a programme for sustainable development, the Sustainability Programme, where it sets the objectives for promoting sustainable development in the teaching, research and everyday operations at the University for the years 2012-2015."
Tampere is also Finland's first Fair Trade university.
The most dynamic-sounding pledge on the register involves planting 100 million trees, mainly in schools, by 2017.
As this initiative has been going since 2004, it's hard to see how it qualifies as "new" - nor, as it's planted seven million trees in those eight years, what guarantees the planting of another 93 million in just five years. Nothing wrong with planting trees, of course. China alone claims to plant more than a billion each year.
On the business side, consultancy firm KPMG - in the shape of its special global adviser Yvo de Boer, former head of the UN climate convention - has highlighted the pledges of the private sector.
"On the sidelines of Rio+20, green economy pledges of more than $500bn have been made," he tweeted.
A KPMG analysis notes that on the governmental level: "Signing something, anything even, was seen as better than signing nothing. That... produced a lowest common denominator document that satisfied almost no-one."
However, while governments were busy saving face, it contends: "There was plenty of action, it just did not come from the multilateral political negotiations. Businesses - and some governments, both national and local - got on with the job either unilaterally or in groups, often in collaboration with civil society and NGOs."
A separate bit of the UN website records pledges made by businesses at Rio+20. Here's a random selection:
"A subset of UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate companies pledge to expand and deepen their efforts in support of more sustainable water management practices in 2012 and beyond"
"Reduce potential damage to natural infrastructure by reducing water, land, and air pollution resulting from the disposition of electronic waste by instituting stringent practices for the responsible management, disposition and tracking of e-waste" (Lockheed Martin)
"Supporting under-served young people acquire the education and skills needed to join and succeed in the 21st century workplace" (Deloitte)
Again, nothing much not to like. But is it enough?
At my first UN climate summit, in Nairobi in 2006, I asked an experienced negotiator what to me was the only question that mattered: "What has this event done to curb climate change?"
He gently chided me for it. "That's the one question you're not supposed to ask."
Before Rio+20, just about every environmental indicator was pointing in the wrong direction. Greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, loss of forest and wetland... and at Rio, governments acknowledged it, repeatedly, in speeches.
So in all the voluntary commitments made at Rio, precisely what is there that will turn any of these trends around?
Looking at the social side of the sustainable development agenda, precisely what happened to bring the poorest out of poverty, supply them with proper sanitation, or free them from the burden of eminently treatable childhood illnesses?
What was agreed to insulate the global financial system against further shocks - another issue identified by world leaders in the run-up to Rio as a just subject for discussion?
If the answer to those questions is "very little", then precisely what was the point?
The Chatham House debate didn't produce anything to seriously challenge my initial conclusions.
Panelists with business connections ran through a number of initiatives happening in buildings, energy supply, water efficiency and so on that are curtailing the expansion of industry's footprint.
But they also acknowledged it's not enough.
When big UN set-pieces fail, people come up with apologist answers for a number of reasons. They're desperate to preserve the multilateral process. They're keen to please the hosts. They see other issues as more important than the conference agenda. Or they have a particular line to push.
But I think, overall, with the benefit of five weeks of hindsight and a number of post-Rio discussions under my belt, the conference that I reported on was the one that actually took place.
Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is
by: Bill McKibben
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the "largest temperature departure from average of any season on record." The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet's history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world's nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn't even attend. It was "a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago," the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls "once thronged by multitudes." Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.
When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn't yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.
The First Number: 2° Celsius
If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to slow a changing climate. The world's nations had gathered in the December gloom of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, called the "most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake." As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the conference, declared at the time: "This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever."
In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-saving "Copenhagen Accord" that fooled very few. Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement mechanism. "Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight," an angry Greenpeace official declared, "with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport." Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked one.
The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius." And in the very next paragraph, it declared that "we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius." By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.
Some context: So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. "Any number much above one degree involves a gamble," writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, "and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much." NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: "The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster." At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear." When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a "suicide pact" for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."
Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it's fair to say that it's the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world's carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can't raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it's become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.
The Second Number: 565 Gigatons
Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)
This idea of a global "carbon budget" emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we've increased the Earth's temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we're currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.
How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that they're exact, but few dispute that they're generally right. The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Looking at them as they come in, they hardly differ at all," says Tom Wigley, an Australian climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "There's maybe 40 models in the data set now, compared with 20 before. But so far the numbers are pretty much the same. We're just fine-tuning things. I don't think much has changed over the last decade." William Collins, a senior climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agrees. "I think the results of this round of simulations will be quite similar," he says. "We're not getting any free lunch from additional understanding of the climate system."
We're not getting any free lunch from the world's economies, either. With only a single year's lull in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, we've continued to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, year after year. In late May, the International Energy Agency published its latest figures – CO2 emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the year before. America had a warm winter and converted more coal-fired power plants to natural gas, so its emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its carbon output (which recently surpassed the U.S.) rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut down their fleet of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged up 2.4 percent. "There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency," said Corinne Le Quéré, who runs England's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. "But what this shows is that so far the effects have been marginal." In fact, study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school. "The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist. In fact, he continued, "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees." That's almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.
So, new data in hand, everyone at the Rio conference renewed their ritual calls for serious international action to move us back to a two-degree trajectory. The charade will continue in November, when the next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in Qatar. This will be COP 18 – COP 1 was held in Berlin in 1995, and since then the process has accomplished essentially nothing. Even scientists, who are notoriously reluctant to speak out, are slowly overcoming their natural preference to simply provide data. "The message has been consistent for close to 30 years now," Collins says with a wry laugh, "and we have the instrumentation and the computer power required to present the evidence in detail. If we choose to continue on our present course of action, it should be done with a full evaluation of the evidence the scientific community has presented." He pauses, suddenly conscious of being on the record. "I should say, a fuller evaluation of the evidence."
So far, though, such calls have had little effect. We're in the same position we've been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction. Among scientists speaking off the record, disgusted candor is the rule. One senior scientist told me, "You know those new cigarette packs, where governments make them put a picture of someone with a hole in their throats? Gas pumps should have something like that."
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton, an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers – combed through proprietary databases to figure out how much oil, gas and coal the world's major energy companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren't perfect – they don't fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and they don't accurately reflect coal reserves, which are subject to less stringent reporting requirements than oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures are quite exact: If you burned everything in the inventories of Russia's Lukoil and America's ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil and gas companies, each would release more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It's why they've worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today's market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you'd be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren't exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won't necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can't have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That's how the story ends.
So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed. The planet's emissions of carbon dioxide continue to soar, especially as developing countries emulate (and supplant) the industries of the West. Even in rich countries, small reductions in emissions offer no sign of the real break with the status quo we'd need to upend the iron logic of these three numbers. Germany is one of the only big countries that has actually tried hard to change its energy mix; on one sunny Saturday in late May, that northern-latitude nation generated nearly half its power from solar panels within its borders. That's a small miracle – and it demonstrates that we have the technology to solve our problems. But we lack the will. So far, Germany's the exception; the rule is ever more carbon.
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.
People perceive – correctly – that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2; by 2010, a poll found that "while recycling is widespread in America and 73 percent of those polled are paying bills online in order to save paper," only four percent had reduced their utility use and only three percent had purchased hybrid cars. Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter – but time is precisely what we lack.
A more efficient method, of course, would be to work through the political system, and environmentalists have tried that, too, with the same limited success. They've patiently lobbied leaders, trying to convince them of our peril and assuming that politicians would heed the warnings. Sometimes it has seemed to work. Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned more aggressively about climate change than any president before him – the night he won the nomination, he told supporters that his election would mark the moment "the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal." And he has achieved one significant change: a steady increase in the fuel efficiency mandated for automobiles. It's the kind of measure, adopted a quarter-century ago, that would have helped enormously. But in light of the numbers I've just described, it's obviously a very small start indeed.
At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it's burned. And there the president, apparently haunted by the still-echoing cry of "Drill, baby, drill," has gone out of his way to frack and mine. His secretary of interior, for instance, opened up a huge swath of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for coal extraction: The total basin contains some 67.5 gigatons worth of carbon (or more than 10 percent of the available atmospheric space). He's doing the same thing with Arctic and offshore drilling; in fact, as he explained on the stump in March, "You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can... That's a commitment that I make." The next day, in a yard full of oil pipe in Cushing, Oklahoma, the president promised to work on wind and solar energy but, at the same time, to speed up fossil-fuel development: "Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy." That is, he's committed to finding even more stock to add to the 2,795-gigaton inventory of unburned carbon.
Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. "Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data," she said, describing the sight as "sobering." But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that's more than 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts. Last month, the Obama administration indicated that it would give Shell permission to start drilling in sections of the Arctic.
Almost every government with deposits of hydrocarbons straddles the same divide. Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy renowned for its internationalism – no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty, promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012. But the rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta economically attractive – and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada's commitment to Kyoto was nonsense. In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments.
The same kind of hypocrisy applies across the ideological board: In his speech to the Copenhagen conference, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez quoted Rosa Luxemburg, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and "Christ the Redeemer," insisting that "climate change is undoubtedly the most devastating environmental problem of this century." But the next spring, in the Simon Bolivar Hall of the state-run oil company, he signed an agreement with a consortium of international players to develop the vast Orinoco tar sands as "the most significant engine for a comprehensive development of the entire territory and Venezuelan population." The Orinoco deposits are larger than Alberta's – taken together, they'd fill up the whole available atmospheric space.
So: the paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, "The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln." And enemies are what climate change has lacked.
But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. "Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices," says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. "But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."
According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they're planning to use it.
They're clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world's best scientists, after all, and they're bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.
There's not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson. Late last month, on the same day the Colorado fires reached their height, he told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an "engineering problem" that has "engineering solutions." Such as? "Changes to weather patterns that move crop-production areas around – we'll adapt to that." This in a week when Kentucky farmers were reporting that corn kernels were "aborting" in record heat, threatening a spike in global food prices. "The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say, 'We just have to stop this,' I do not accept," Tillerson said. Of course not – if he did accept it, he'd have to keep his reserves in the ground. Which would cost him money. It's not an engineering problem, in other words – it's a greed problem.
You could argue that this is simply in the nature of these companies – that having found a profitable vein, they're compelled to keep mining it, more like efficient automatons than people with free will. But as the Supreme Court has made clear, they are people of a sort. In fact, thanks to the size of its bankroll, the fossil-fuel industry has far more free will than the rest of us. These companies don't simply exist in a world whose hungers they fulfill – they help create the boundaries of that world.
Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon and stop short of the brink; according to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans would back an international agreement that cut carbon emissions 90 percent by 2050. But we aren't left to our own devices. The Koch brothers, for instance, have a combined wealth of $50 billion, meaning they trail only Bill Gates on the list of richest Americans. They've made most of their money in hydrocarbons, they know any system to regulate carbon would cut those profits, and they reportedly plan to lavish as much as $200 million on this year's elections. In 2009, for the first time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce surpassed both the Republican and Democratic National Committees on political spending; the following year, more than 90 percent of the Chamber's cash went to GOP candidates, many of whom deny the existence of global warming. Not long ago, the Chamber even filed a brief with the EPA urging the agency not to regulate carbon – should the world's scientists turn out to be right and the planet heats up, the Chamber advised, "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations." As radical goes, demanding that we change our physiology seems right up there.
Environmentalists, understandably, have been loath to make the fossil-fuel industry their enemy, respecting its political power and hoping instead to convince these giants that they should turn away from coal, oil and gas and transform themselves more broadly into "energy companies." Sometimes that strategy appeared to be working – emphasis on appeared. Around the turn of the century, for instance, BP made a brief attempt to restyle itself as "Beyond Petroleum," adapting a logo that looked like the sun and sticking solar panels on some of its gas stations. But its investments in alternative energy were never more than a tiny fraction of its budget for hydrocarbon exploration, and after a few years, many of those were wound down as new CEOs insisted on returning to the company's "core business." In December, BP finally closed its solar division. Shell shut down its solar and wind efforts in 2009. The five biggest oil companies have made more than $1 trillion in profits since the millennium – there's simply too much money to be made on oil and gas and coal to go chasing after zephyrs and sunbeams.
Much of that profit stems from a single historical accident: Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break – if you own a restaurant, you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the street would breed rats. But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous. But now that we understand that carbon is heating the planet and acidifying the oceans, its price becomes the central issue.
If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they'd be reminded that you don't need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called "fee-and-dividend" scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead.
There's only one problem: Putting a price on carbon would reduce the profitability of the fossil-fuel industry. After all, the answer to the question "How high should the price of carbon be?" is "High enough to keep those carbon reserves that would take us past two degrees safely in the ground." The higher the price on carbon, the more of those reserves would be worthless. The fight, in the end, is about whether the industry will succeed in its fight to keep its special pollution break alive past the point of climate catastrophe, or whether, in the economists' parlance, we'll make them internalize those externalities.
It's not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry can be broken. The U.K. analysts who wrote the Carbon Tracker report and drew attention to these numbers had a relatively modest goal – they simply wanted to remind investors that climate change poses a very real risk to the stock prices of energy companies. Say something so big finally happens (a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture) that even the political power of the industry is inadequate to restrain legislators, who manage to regulate carbon. Suddenly those Chevron reserves would be a lot less valuable, and the stock would tank. Given that risk, the Carbon Tracker report warned investors to lessen their exposure, hedge it with some big plays in alternative energy.
"The regular process of economic evolution is that businesses are left with stranded assets all the time," says Nick Robins, who runs HSBC's Climate Change Centre. "Think of film cameras, or typewriters. The question is not whether this will happen. It will. Pension systems have been hit by the dot-com and credit crunch. They'll be hit by this." Still, it hasn't been easy to convince investors, who have shared in the oil industry's record profits. "The reason you get bubbles," sighs Leaton, "is that everyone thinks they're the best analyst – that they'll go to the edge of the cliff and then jump back when everyone else goes over."
So pure self-interest probably won't spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that's the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.
Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. "The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century," as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, "but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure," especially from "the divestment movement of the 1980s."
The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you'd still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college's endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won't have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world's largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that's when their members will "enjoy their retirement.") "Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective," says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. "The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now."
Movements rarely have predictable outcomes. But any campaign that weakens the fossil-fuel industry's political standing clearly increases the chances of retiring its special breaks. Consider President Obama's signal achievement in the climate fight, the large increase he won in mileage requirements for cars. Scientists, environmentalists and engineers had advocated such policies for decades, but until Detroit came under severe financial pressure, it was politically powerful enough to fend them off. If people come to understand the cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet's physical systems – it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies, this time for real.
Even if such a campaign is possible, however, we may have waited too long to start it. To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature increase of two degrees – you'd need to change carbon pricing in Washington, and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world. At this point, what happens in the U.S. is most important for how it will influence China and India, where emissions are growing fastest. (In early June, researchers concluded that China has probably under-reported its emissions by up to 20 percent.) The three numbers I've described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who's planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.
Meanwhile the tide of numbers continues. The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.
Want to know what global warming has in store for us? Just go to Australia, where rivers are drying up, reefs are dying, and fires and floods are ravaging the continent
by: Jeff Goodell
It's near midnight, and I'm holed up in a rickety hotel in Proserpine, a whistle-stop town on the northeast coast of Australia. Yasi, a Category 5 hurricane with 200-mile-per-hour winds that's already been dubbed "The Mother of All Catastrophes" by excitable Aussie tabloids, is just a few hundred miles offshore. When the eye of the storm hits, forecasters predict, it will be the worst ever to batter the east coast of Australia.
I have come to Australia to see what a global-warming future holds for this most vulnerable of nations, and Mother Nature has been happy to oblige: Over the course of just a few weeks, the continent has been hit by a record heat wave, a crippling drought, bush fires, floods that swamped an area the size of France and Germany combined, even a plague of locusts. "In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions," Andrew Fraser, the Queensland state treasurer, told reporters. He was talking about the floods in his region, but the sense that Australia – which maintains one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints on the planet – has summoned up the wrath of the climate gods is everywhere. "Australia is the canary in the coal mine," says David Karoly, a top climate researcher at the University of Melbourne. "What is happening in Australia now is similar to what we can expect to see in other places in the future."
As Yasi bears down on the coast, the massive storm seems to embody the not-quite-conscious fears of Australians that their country may be doomed by global warming. This year's disasters, in fact, are only the latest installment in an ongoing series of climate-related crises. In 2009, wildfires in Australia torched more than a million acres and killed 173 people. The Murray-Darling Basin, which serves as the country's breadbasket, has suffered a decades-long drought, and what water is left is becoming increasingly salty and unusable, raising the question of whether Australia, long a major food exporter, will be able to feed itself in the coming decades. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, leading to the all-but-certain death of the Great Barrier Reef within 40 years. Homes along the Gold Coast are being swept away, koala bears face extinction in the wild, and farmers, their crops shriveled by drought, are shooting themselves in despair.
With Yasi approaching fast, disaster preparations are fully under way. At the airport, the Australian Defense Force is racing to load emergency supplies into Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters. Entire cities have shut down, their streets nearly empty as I drive north, toward the center of the storm, through sugar plantations and ranch land. Dead kangaroos sprawl by the side of the road, the victims of motorists fleeing the storm.
With the winds hitting 80 miles per hour, I'm forced to stop in Proserpine, where the windows are taped and sandbags are piled in front of doors. Palm trees are bent horizontal in the wind, and the shingles of a nearby roof blow off and shoot into the darkness. It's as if civilization is being dismantled one shingle at a time.
"Welcome to Australia, the petri dish of climate change," an Aussie friend e-mailed me the day before. "Stay safe."
In the past year – one of the hottest on record – extreme weather has battered almost every corner of the planet. There have been devastating droughts in China and India, unprecedented floods and wildfires in the United States, and near-record ice melts in the Arctic. Yet the prosperous nations of the world have failed to take action to reduce the risk of climate change, in part because people in prosperous nations think they're invulnerable. They're under the misapprehension that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Tom Schelling puts it, "Global warming is a problem that is going to primarily affect future generations of poor people." To see how foolish this reasoning is, one need only look at Australia, a prosperous nation that also happens to be right in the cross hairs of global warming. "Sadly, it's probably too late to save much of it," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.
This is not to say that the entire continent will sink beneath the waves anytime soon. What is likely to vanish – or be transformed beyond recognition – are many of the things we think of when we think of Australia: the barrier reef, the koalas, the sense of the country as a land of almost limitless natural resources. Instead, Australia is likely to become hotter, drier and poorer, fractured by increasing tensions over access to water, food and energy as its major cities are engulfed by the rising seas.
To climate scientists, it's no surprise that Australia would feel the effects of climate change so strongly, in part because it has one of the world's most variable climates. "One effect of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals," says Karoly. "Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced." Adding to Australia's vulnerability is its close connection with the sea. Australia is the only island continent on the planet, which means that changes caused by planet-warming pollution – warmer seas, which can drive stronger storms, and more acidic oceans, which wreak havoc on the food chain – are even more deadly here.
How bad could it get? A recent study by MIT projects that without "rapid and massive action" to cut carbon pollution, the Earth's temperature could soar by nine degrees this century. "There are no analogies in human history for a temperature jump of that size in such a short time period," says Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist at Australian National University. The few times in human history when temperatures fell by seven degrees, he points out, the sudden shift likely triggered a bubonic plague in Europe, caused the abrupt collapse of the Moche civilization in Peru and reduced the entire human race to as few as 1,000 breeding pairs after a volcanic eruption blocked out the sun some 73,000 years ago. "We think that because we are a technologically sophisticated society, we are less vulnerable to these kinds of dramatic shifts in climate," McMichael says. "But in some ways, because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are more vulnerable."
With nine degrees of warming, computer models project that Australia will look like a disaster movie. Habitats for most vertebrates will vanish. Water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by half, severely curtailing food production. Rising sea levels will wipe out large parts of major cities and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal homes and roads. The Great Barrier Reef will be reduced to a pile of purple bacterial slime. Thousands of people will die from heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as mosquito-borne infections like dengue fever. Depression and suicide will become even more common among displaced farmers and Aborigines. Dr. James Ross, medical director for Australia's Remote Area Health Corps, calls climate change "the number-one challenge for human health in the 21st century."
And all this doesn't even hint at the political complexities Australia will face in a hotter world, including an influx of refugees from poorer climate-ravaged nations. ("If you want to understand Australian politics," says Anthony Kitchener, an Australian entrepreneur, "the first thing you have to understand is our fear of yellow hordes from the north.") Then there are the economic costs. The Queensland floods earlier this year caused $30 billion in damage and forced the government to implement a $1.8 billion "flood tax" to help pay for reconstruction. As temperatures rise, so will the price tag. "We can't afford to spend 10 percent of our GDP building sea walls and trying to adapt to climate change," says Ian Goodwin, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney.
With so much at risk, you might expect Australia to be at the forefront of the clean-energy revolution and the international effort to cut carbon pollution. After all, the continent's vast, empty deserts were practically designed for solar-power installations. And unlike the U.S. Congress, the Australian Parliament did ratify the Kyoto Protocol, pledging to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050. But it was an empty gesture. Australia remains deeply addicted to coal, which not only provides 80 percent of its electricity but serves as its leading export. Perhaps more than any other nation on earth, Australia is trapped by the devil's bargain of fossil fuels: In the short term, the health of the nation's economy depends on burning coal. But in the long term, the survival of its people depends on quitting coal. Australia's year of extreme weather has reawakened calls for a tax on carbon pollution, but it is far from clear that the initiative will pass, or, in the big picture, whether it will matter much. "What we are ultimately talking about is how climate change is destabilizing one of the most advanced nations on the planet," says Paul Gilding, an Australian climate adviser and author of The Great Disruption. "If Australia is vulnerable, everyone is vulnerable."
The morning after Yasi, I emerge from my hotel to find a few broken windows and downed trees. The flooding isn't as bad as had been feared, but the hurricane has still turned the region upside down: roofs blown off houses, trees down, sailboats in the streets, traffic backed up for miles. "This is bringing a world of hurt to people," one trucker tells me as we wait in line for the road to open.
In the following days, there is much speculation in the Aussie press about whether or not Yasi was "caused" by global warming. Most media outlets gloss over the complexities of the science – an unsurprising omission, given that Australia is home to Rupert Murdoch's media empire – and instead reassure readers that hurricanes have been hitting Queensland for thousands of years. One of the major drivers of the storm, they insist, was a particularly strong La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific.
That's true – but it's only part of the story. Thanks to record-high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, surface temperatures in the ocean near Australia last year were the highest ever recorded – nearly one degree above normal. And climate scientists have long warned that warmer oceans increase the risk of faster, more deadly hurricanes. "We realized way back in 1987 that CO2-induced warming would increase the speed limit on hurricanes," Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has said. "It surprised us how much power increase you got with just a little bit of increase in the sea-surface temperature."
Murdoch's papers also failed to point out that the more coal the country burns and exports, the fiercer its hurricanes are likely to become. "Unless we start reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere soon," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, "the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future."
Australia, in fact, has been getting a glimpse of the global-warming future for more than two decades. What Australians call "The Big Dry" began in the early 1990s and quickly grew worse, with a dozen years of below-average rainfall. Drinking-water reservoirs for Melbourne, with a population of 4 million people, were soon depleted. Topsoil from farms started to dry up and blow away – one dust cloud was nearly 1,000 miles long and 250 miles wide. In Sydney, the dust storms were so bad they shut down the airport and ferry service, forcing people to stay indoors. In a single day, scientists estimated, several million tons of topsoil had been stripped from deserts and farms and blown out to sea. As Dianne Thorley, the mayor of a small city in the drought-stricken Murray-Darling Basin, told a reporter, "Australia is drying up, a little bit like a dried apple."
In a sense, Australia is a creation of human ingenuity. Of the six inhabited continents, Australia is the driest. Except for a tropical belt in the north and some temperate areas in the southeast, the entire place is a desert. The fact that 22 million people can inhabit the continent is a tribute to engineers, who have figured out a way to extract enough water out of the ground and collect it in enough reservoirs to allow Australians to grow tomatoes and take hot showers whenever they please. Indeed, the greatest engineering achievement in Australia may be the construction of an elaborate network of canals and waterways that transformed the Murray-Darling Basin, a formerly scrubby wasteland covering 1 million square miles in southeastern Australia, into an agricultural wonderland. The basin now produces about 40 percent of the nation's food, enabling Australia to become a major exporter of wheat.
But that engineering triumph has come at a cost. The industrial-scale farming operations that took over the basin have depleted nutrients in the soil, sucked rivers dry and replaced deep-rooted indigenous plants well-adapted to Australia's extreme climate with shallow-rooted crops that need constant irrigation to survive. As a result, all the extra water being pumped into the land has raised the water table in many places, releasing salt deposits into the soil. "Salinity is not just poisoning the soil, it is also wrecking the water supply for people downstream," says Billy Squire, an environmental activist in the basin. "It is a slow-motion disaster."
Transforming a harsh desert into farms and shopping malls has also left large parts of Australia hugely dependent on seasonal rainfall. After all, engineers can redistribute water, but they can't manufacture it. As the Big Dry dragged on, rainfall declined in the southern part of the country, where most of the people live and the majority of the food is grown, fueling the risk of catastrophic bush fires. The reasons for this change in rainfall patterns are complex, but many climate scientists believe that the Big Dry was driven by subtle shifts in the structure of Australia's atmosphere caused by the dramatic buildup of carbon pollution. "The storm track, which brings rain-bearing weather to Australia, has shifted a few degrees south," says Karoly, the University of Melbourne scientist. "Rain that had fallen on southwestern and southeastern Australia now falls on the ocean." Global warming, in other words, shifted the continent's vital rainfall out to sea.
For farmers in southeastern Australia, the minute shift in atmospheric conditions was devastating. In the Murray-Darling Basin, water reservoirs declined by two-thirds in the past decade, leading to severe water shortages for many farmers and ranchers. Thirsty cattle sickened and died. Rice yields declined by 98 percent. The basin's waterways and canals, long considered an engineering triumph, turned into a network of mudholes and dried-up creek beds. Many farmers, unable to make it, were forced to sell or abandon their land.
In desperation, local water boards authorized crazy cloud-seeding experiments in a failed attempt to "manufacture" rain. Big cities also responded by trying to come up with a technological fix. In Melbourne, officials pushed through a controversial $3.5 billion project to build one of the world's largest water-desalinization plants, capable of converting 110 million gallons of seawater into fresh drinking water every day – roughly a third of the city's water consumption. "Desalinization is a very expensive way to create drinking water," says James Bradfield Moody, the director of development at one of Australia's top science agencies. "It is no replacement for rain."
Smaller cities, unable to afford such costly projects, turned to even more desperate measures. Toowoomba, an agricultural town perched on a plateau 80 miles inland from Brisbane, found its drinkingwater reservoir down to only seven percent of capacity. The regional council floated the idea of building a $68 million treatment plant that would essentially turn sewage into drinking water – he first of its kind in Australia. Despite reassurances that the recycled water would be safe to drink, residents rejected the proposal, unable to get their minds around the fact that they were going to have to drink their own piss. Instead, the council voted to build a 20-mile pipeline to draw water from another reservoir. It also decided to tap the Great Artesian Basin, a deep aquifer that underlies nearly a quarter of the continent, further depleting the only source of fresh water for much of inland Australia. "It's the water equivalent of burning the furniture to heat your house," says Moody.
Last summer, it finally rained in southern Australia. In fact, it flooded. Many farmers in the region took that to mean the Big Dry was over. More likely, it was only a short reprieve. Climate models show that the drought is likely to worsen in the coming decades. "When it comes to water, we are living beyond our means in Australia," says Moody. "In the long run, the life we have created here is unsustainable without major changes."
Without water, Australia not only dries up – it also burns. Wildfires have long been a routine part of life here, and Australians considered them a manageable risk. But all that changed in late January 2009, when the temperature in Melbourne spiked to 110 degrees for three days in a row. The public transportation system literally collapsed, as steel trolley rails bowed in the heat, and hundreds of thousands of homes lost power. John Brumby, the state premier of Victoria, held a press conference warning that the coming Saturday, February 7th, would be the "worst day in the history of the state." By that point, thanks to the Big Dry, rainfall had been below normal for nearly a decade, sucking the moisture out of the soil and making trees and plants as brittle as matchsticks. "The state is just tinder-dry," Brumby warned, calling on Victorians to prepare for the worst.
In the hills above Melbourne, Jane O'Connor and her husband spent the morning clearing dry brush from around their home and watering the roof. The fire conditions were nightmarish. The temperature had hit 115 degrees – the hottest day on record. Humidity was only six percent, and a strong wind was blowing from the northwest. "We knew the situation was bad," says O'Connor, a 56-year-old publishing executive, "but we felt we were prepared for it." Even when the radio reported that fires were sweeping through the hills 30 miles away, she and her husband made no move to head for safety. "We weren't too worried," she recalls.
Then, as O'Connor watched in horror, a wall of smoke that had seemed far to the south suddenly began racing toward her home. "By the time we realized the trouble we were in," she says, "it was too late to evacuate."
The firestorm sweeping across the hillside was like nothing she – or anyone – had ever seen before. A wall of flame moving at eight miles per hour was incinerating everything in its path. O'Connor hurried to stuff wet towels under the doors while her husband soaked down the yard with a hose. But within minutes, she heard a deafening roar. Looking out the window, she saw a "hurricane of fire" – flames shooting 70 feet into the air, fanned by the high winds created by the storm's thermal vacuum. As trees burst into flames, O'Connor and her husband narrowly escaped to a nearby house that was more fire-resistant.
For the rest of the night, she and her neighbors watched the hills burn. "We could see houses igniting, diesel tanks exploding," she recalls. Officials later reported that 600 fires broke out in Victoria that day, some with flames 300 feet high capable of killing people nearly a quarter mile away. One researcher estimated that the amount of energy released by the fires in a single day was equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima.
The next day, when O'Connor returned to her home, nothing was standing but the chimney. The fire had been so hot it had melted the windshield of her car. "Everything we had was gone," she says. Not far from her house, nine people died in a brick home they had taken refuge in, including a mother and five children.
You might think that surviving such a harrowing encounter would make O'Connor more attuned to the risks of living on a superheated planet, but it hasn't. "I think the jury is still out on the science of climate change," O'Connor says from the safety of her air-conditioned office in Melbourne. "Australia has always had wildfires, and this could be just part of a natural cycle. I think it's too soon to tell."
Climate experts say otherwise. According to Australia's top scientists, a hotter planet equals a much higher risk of catastrophic fires. Even in a "low global-warming scenario" with modest increases in carbon pollution, catastrophic fires will ravage Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050. Under a "high global-warming scenario" – essentially the track the world is on today – catastrophic fires will occur every year in some regions. As Peter Marshall, a leader of the Australian firefighters union, put it in a letter to the prime minister, "The science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster."
Two days before Yasi hit, I was 45 miles off the coast of Australia, swimming with sea turtles and parrotfish on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is a festival of color and life: corals in bright-pink mounds, blacktip reef sharks, silver jacks and angelfish. But whenever I got too carried away by the beauty of the reef, my underwater guide, David Kline, a researcher at the University of Queensland's Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab, would point to a cluster of ghostly corals and nod. I knew what he meant: These underwater skeletons had been killed off by the warming ocean – a sign of the trouble ahead for one of Australia's most important ecosystems.
Climatewise, what's happening to the reef is in many ways the opposite of a hurricane: Instead of a dramatic blowdown, it's an incremental collapse. Rising ocean temperatures, as well as the sea's increasing acidity, are slowly killing off coral reefs around the world. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best-managed reefs on the planet – commercial fishing, a major problem in other areas, is severely restricted. But even here, the increasingly hot, acidic seas mean that the reef is unlikely to survive much beyond 2050. As J.E.N. Veron, former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has put it: "What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."
For most Australians, the decline and fall of the Great Barrier Reef is impossible to imagine. "What the polar bears are to northerners, the reef is to us," says Karoly. The reef itself, which is roughly 9,000 years old, is the largest structure ever made by life on Earth, extending some 1,250 miles along the coast. It is home to an incredible diversity of life: 5,000 types of mollusks, 1,800 species of fish, 125 kinds of sharks. It is also a major economic engine for Australia, drawing 2 million visitors a year and generating $6 billion in revenue.
Exactly how the reef will decline, and what can be done about it, is the subject of much of the work at the Heron Island Research Center. The island is a narrow spit of land on the southern end of the reef, just large enough for a slightly dilapidated resort on one end and a collection of dormlike sleeping quarters and labs at the other. The station is run by the University of Queensland, and during the summer, it's overrun by scientists studying everything from shearwater mating habits to the effects of rising ocean acidity on the navigational abilities of clown fish.
Corals are strange animals. Each one is made up of flower-shaped polyps that build their skeletons on the outside, allowing tiny algae to live inside and provide energy to the coral via photosynthesis. The coral grows by excreting calcium carbonate, which provides the skeleton for new polyps. The reef itself is nothing more than a collection of millions of these polyps, and the brilliant colors of the corals are the manifestation of the different types of algae that live within them. This symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae is fragile. If the coral is exposed to bright light at the same time as high temperatures, it can cause the algae to produce toxic levels of oxygen. To survive, the coral expel the toxic algae, which leaves them pale and sick – a condition marine scientists call "bleaching." In most cases, the coral never recovers.
As the Earth heats up, bleaching has become increasingly common at reefs around the world. A mass bleaching in 1998 killed 90 percent of the corals in the Indian Ocean. Last year, reefs bleached throughout the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Unless we find a way to cool the planet, 95 percent of the reefs on the planet, including the Great Barrier Reef, are expected to be subject to severe bleaching by 2050.
In the long run, ocean acidification is an even bigger threat to the reef than warming seas. Acidification, which occurs as the ocean breaks down the CO2 in the atmosphere into carbonic acid, inhibits the ability of corals to create their calcium-carbonate skeletons. Kline participated in a study that showed a 40 percent decline in calcification rates of certain corals on the Great Barrier Reef in the past 30 years. By the end of the century, if nothing changes, the world's oceans are expected to be 150 percent more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution – creating a loss of corals that will be irreversible. "The potential consequences of such acidification are nothing less than catastrophic," says Veron. "The ocean is going to suck up CO2, and there is not much we can do about it – other than get serious about cutting the amount of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere."
Beyond the reef, acidification also damages shell-creating creatures throughout the ocean, from crabs and oysters to the billions of tiny pteropods that form a key part of the marine food chain. Recent research has shown that even organisms that don't have shells, such as krill, have a difficult time surviving in more acidic waters. "One possible consequence of ocean acidification is the collapse of the food chain," says Donna Roberts, a marine biologist who heads the country's research on ocean acidification. "If the krill vanish, will the whales be able to find other food sources? What about all the fish that depend on fish that eat pteropods – can they adapt? It is not at all clear how the ocean food chain will react if you pull out the organisms at the bottom."
One likely scenario: the triumph of the jellyfish. Since jellyfish don't build shells, a world with more acidic seas may give them an evolutionary advantage. Roberts says she's already seeing a lot more jellyfish on her research trips. "One of the consequences of burning fossil fuels may be that we're creating an ocean of jellyfish," she says.
I ask Kline about this one day as we walk along the reef at low tide. Reef sharks dart ahead of us, and rays float past in the shallow water like underwater butterflies. "The reef is not going to die overnight," he says, trying to sound optimistic. "The complexity of the ecosystem will decline. It will become full of weedy, opportunistic species – a junkyard reef."
I play devil's advocate. "Some people would say, 'So we lose the Great Barrier Reef. Sad, but so what?' It's not like the human race won't go on."
Kline stops and picks up a sea cucumber – an ugly, slug-shaped animal that is endangered by overfishing. "It's true, the human race could probably survive without the Great Barrier Reef," he says. He mentions the tourist business the reef brings to Australia, the protection it provides against storms along the coast and the value of its creatures to science and medicine. "But for me, it's not that rational," he says, settling the sea cucumber gently back into the water. "It just comes down to the fact that the reef is one of the wonders of the natural world – and we're going to trash it just because we don't want to drive smaller cars or pay a little extra to put solar panels on the roof?"
When the Big Dry ended last September and it finally started raining in the town of Toowoomba, everyone practically fell to their knees in gratitude. "We were hurting real, real bad," says Tom Jenkins, the head of a farming cooperative, who shows me pictures of parched land, cracked and dry. It looks like the Mojave Desert. "Every drop of rainfall seemed like a gift," Jenkins says. "It was like our long nightmare was finally over."
But then the rains kept coming. By late December, the ground was saturated and fields were flooding. The two creeks that ran through town, both of which are usually no more than a trickle in midsummer, overflowed their concrete culverts and spilled into the streets. Water flowed into the foyer of the shopping mall at the center of town. In the countryside, roads flooded out, and hundreds of acres of watermelons – a key crop in the region – were swamped.
And still the rain kept coming. In early January, eight inches of rain fell in five days. Gas stations closed, farmers wrote off an entire season, and the city came to a halt. But incredibly, the rains did not. "I didn't know the sky could hold that much water," says Wayne Reis, who runs a furniture store in the center of town.
The fact that the sky can hold more water is precisely what happens in a warming world. "Global warming is lifting more water vapor into the air, increasing the intensity of torrential downpours," concludes a recent report from Australia's Climate Institute. A two-degree increase in ocean temperatures can boost rainfall by nearly 10 percent. But scientists can't predict where that extra rain will fall, or how far beyond the norm any given weather system might go.
On January 10th, four inches of rain fell on Toowoomba in just a few hours, and by that afternoon, what had been a manageable soaking turned into a catastrophe of such suddenness and force that it defies any attempt to describe it. Within minutes, both creeks in town swelled into a 20-foot-high wall of water. It tore through downtown, sending residents scrambling for higher ground, swamping stores in the mall and floating books in the public library. Office workers took a video of the waters rushing into their parking lot and carrying off their cars, sending them bouncing along the torrent like rubber duckies. The video, viewed some 7 million times on YouTube, became the iconic image of the Toowoomba flood.
Thousands of people, unaware of the sudden danger, were caught in the midst of their daily lives. Donna Rice, a 43-year-old mother of four, was running errands downtown with two of her children – Jordan, 13, and Blake, 10 – when her Mercedes stalled at a busy intersection. "I could see they were in trouble," says Warren McErlean, a truck driver who tried to push Rice's car out of the rising floodwaters. But the water was coming hard and fast, and it knocked him off his feet. Another man, secured by a rope to a lamppost, waded out and managed to grab Blake. By the time he came back, the raging water was flipping the Mercedes over. Rice and Jordan scrambled onto the roof of the car – "I saw the panic in their eyes," says McErlean. The rescuer grabbed them and tried to hold on, but the water was too strong. Rice and Jordan were washed away.
Within a half-hour, the water subsided. An hour later, cars were driving through the debris-strewn intersection. Rice's body was found a mile away behind a flour mill. Jordan's body was found wedged under a fig tree. The floodwaters continued down into the Lockyer Valley, bursting through smaller towns and sweeping buildings, cars and people away. All told, 22 people died from the flash floods.
Eventually, the floodwaters from Toowoomba and the surrounding region all poured into the Brisbane River, which flows through Australia's third-largest city. The river rose 15 feet above normal, breaking its banks and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. Low-lying areas of downtown Brisbane – "Brisvenice," people were calling it on Twitter – were soon underwater. One blogger, writing by candlelight on his iPad, worried that the city seemed dangerously close to a total breakdown. "Despite the casual stoicism with which most people are addressing the flood – this 'natural disaster' – the sense that food, water, electricity and connectivity is so fragile does give pause for thought," he wrote. "How far away is this form of civilization from something deeply uncivilized?"
A few weeks after the flood, on a Saturday afternoon, religious and civic leaders in Toowoomba gather in front of the town's library to hold a service for the residents killed in the catastrophe. "No one thought anything like this could happen here," Bill Cahill, a member of the regional council, tells me. A stolid, respectable citizen if there ever was one, Cahill believes it is time to get beyond the argument about whether global warming is man-made and start preparing for a new, more extreme climate. "For the past decade, we suffered from terrible drought," he says. "Suddenly, we get some rain, this creek floods" – he points to what is now a muddy trickle in a narrow concrete culvert – "and we are nearly swept away."
Cahill points out that trying to control nature can actually backfire. Efforts to channel the creeks that flow through town – paving over their natural creek beds and forcing them into concrete culverts – had only served to amplify the flood, rather than preventing it. "We think we understand how to build a city, how to handle whatever nature throws at us, but we really don't," Cahill says. "We can do a lot of fancy engineering – but sometimes, that just makes us more vulnerable."
A week after yasi hit, I drive up the coast from Sydney with Ian Goodwin, a broad-shouldered scientist in flip-flops and shorts. Now in his early fifties, Goodwin has spent most of his life studying how global warming will change the coast of Australia. He grew up surfing on these waters, and still rides the waves every day that he can. More than most scientists, he understands exactly how much Australia has to lose.
"Living on the beach is pretty much the Australian dream," he says as we pass beach town after beach town. At Narrabeen Beach, a broad sweep of sand 15 miles north of Sydney, Goodwin points out where residents have been forced to truck in sand in an expensive and hopeless effort to keep the beach – and the homes along it – from being washed away by increasingly strong storm surges. If the seas rise by at least three feet this century, as the current scientific consensus expects them to, every one of the structures along the beach will vanish. "In fact," Goodwin says, "the way things are going, they could be gone within a decade or two."
"Do the people who live there know that?" I ask.
"Some of them do, but they don't care," he says. "Or they don't think about it. Australians have a hard time imagining the future will be any different than the present."
Australians aren't alone in their denial, of course. But there is a sense of fatalism here that is absent in America, a feeling borne by having lived for long years in a harsh climate, of being able to take whatever nature dishes out. It is why Australians don't leave their houses during raging wildfires, and why they build cites in landscapes where no cities should be built. When it comes to dealing with Mother Nature's nasty moods, Australians have a kind of outback machismo, a justifiable sense of pride for having built a nation in one of the most extreme climates on the planet. But as the catastrophes multiply, so too do the psychic costs of living with it. As a recent report by Australia's Climate Institute concluded, "Higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence, family dissolution and suicide are more likely to follow more extreme weather events." In 2006, during the prolonged drought in the Murray-Darling Basin, the government estimated that an Australian farmer committed suicide every four days.
It's too soon to say for sure, but it may be that the deadly weather of the past few years will open people's eyes to the risks of living on a superheated planet. In July, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced her proposal for a carbon tax in Australia. The plan would levy a modest price of $25 a ton on carbon for several years, then morph into a carbon-trading scheme in 2015. It's a complicated proposal, full of loopholes and subsidies for Big Coal, but if it passes, it would be a big step in the right direction. "It's a critical time," Ross Garnaut, the government's key climate adviser, told reporters. "Each year, the growth in emissions makes it less likely that we'll be able to avoid severe damage from climate change. So the requirement to take action is urgent."
It's not just floods and drought and wildfires that are spurring action to cut carbon pollution. It's also the fear of being left out of the economic benefits of clean technology. "With its deserts and sunshine, Australia should be the solar-energy capital of the world," one California entrepreneur tells me. "Instead, they are still passing out subsidies to the coal industry." Or as one Australian blogger put it, "Australia is currently exporting typewriters to a global economy moving quickly toward computers."
But as the demand to take action grows, so too does the corporate and political push-back. The coal industry is a powerful force in Australia, and it is rolling out the usual tired arguments that a tax on carbon would devastate the economy and send jobs scurrying overseas. The country's opposition leader, echoing the language of right-wing deniers in Congress, dismisses climate change as "absolute crap." But as befits the Australian psyche, the scare tactics here are even bigger and nastier than in America. The rhetoric over global warming has grown so heated, in fact, that climate scientists at the Australian National University have been assigned security protection after several weeks of abusive e-mails and phone calls. For their work in understanding what is happening to their country, some scientists have even received death threats.
When I ask Goodwin about this, he rolls his eyes. "It's all politics," he says as we walk along the sea wall at Manly Beach, the birthplace of surfing in Australia. "Would a price on carbon be a step in the right direction? Of course. But Australia is a big economy, hooked on growth and the extraction of natural resources – like coal. That is not going to change anytime soon."
Goodwin points out the swanky hotels and beach houses and restaurants along the water. "With three feet of sea-level rise, this is all gone," he says. "The beach, the hotels, the houses – the sea will cut right through to Sydney Harbor. Manly Beach will vanish. Lots of other beaches will go too, but this one is particularly iconic." The destruction could be slowed by building a massive sea wall, Goodwin says, but it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it wouldn't save the beach in the long run. The same thing goes for most beaches in Australia, as well as for Sydney itself – which is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, given the extensive development along the water.
But what about the prime minister's drive to put a price on carbon pollution? Couldn't that save coastal areas like Sydney? Goodwin shakes his head. "We could transform Australia's energy system to 100 percent solar tomorrow, and if we keep exporting coal to China, it won't really matter much in the big picture," he says. "But if we stop exporting coal, our economy will fall apart. So it's a stalemate."
We walk for a while, watching all the happy people strolling along the boardwalk and drinking wine in cafes and surfing the waves. The sun is shining, and everything is lovely. Too bad that it all has to go.
How Big Oil and Big Coal mounted one of the most agressive lobbying campaigns in history to block progress on global warming
by: Jeff Goodell
This was supposed to be the transformative moment on global warming, the tipping point when America proved to the world that capitalism has a conscience, that we take the fate of the planet seriously. According to the script, Congress would pass a landmark bill committing the U.S. to deep cuts in carbon emissions. President Obama would then arrive in Copenhagen for the international climate summit, armed with the moral and political capital he needed to challenge the rest of the world to do the same. After all, wasn't this the kind of bold move the Norwegians were anticipating when they awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize?
As we now know, it didn't work out that way. Obama arrived in Copenhagen last month without any legislation committing the U.S. to reduce carbon pollution. Instead of reaching agreement on how to stop cooking the planet, the summit devolved into bickering over who bears the most blame for turning up the heat. The world once again missed an opportunity to avert disaster — and the delay is likely to have deadly consequences. In recent years, we have moved from talking about the possibility of climate change to watching it unfold before our eyes. The Arctic is melting, wildfires are turning into infernos, warm-weather insects are devouring forests, droughts are getting longer and more lethal. And the more we learn about climate change, the more it becomes apparent how enormous the risks are. Just a few years ago, researchers estimated that sea levels would likely rise 17 inches by 2100. Now they believe it could be three feet or more — a cataclysmic shift that would doom many of the world's cities, including London and New Orleans, and create tens of millions of climate refugees.
Our collective response to the emerging catastrophe verges on suicidal. World leaders have been talking about tackling climate change for nearly 20 years now — yet carbon emissions keep going up and up. "We are in a race against time," says Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington who has fought for sharp reductions in planet-warming pollution. "Mother Nature isn't sitting around waiting for us to get our political act together." In fact, our failure to confront global warming is more than simply political incompetence. Over the past year, the corporations and special interests most responsible for climate change waged an all-out war to prevent Congress from cracking down on carbon pollution in time for Copenhagen. The oil and coal industries deployed an unprecedented army of lobbyists, spent millions on misleading studies and engaged in outright deception to derail climate legislation. "It was the most aggressive and corrupt lobbying campaign I've ever seen," says Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic consultant.
By preventing meaningful action in Copenhagen, the battle to kill the climate bill provided the world's biggest polluters with a lucrative victory — one that comes at the rest of the world's expense. "In the long term, the fossil-fuel industry is going to lose this war," says Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But in the short term, they are doing everything they can to delay the revolution. For them, what this fight is really about is buying precious time to maximize profits from carbon sources. It's really no more complicated than that."
For the nation's dirtiest carbon polluters, the election of President Obama was not good news. Big-energy interests had a real pal in George W. Bush, but during the 2008 campaign, Obama put the fate of the planet above the fate of the fossil-fuel industry. America's oil addiction, he declared, is "one of the greatest challenges of our generation."
Even before the election was over, those who had the candidate's ear were urging Obama to move quickly to enact climate legislation. In a lengthy memo to the campaign, an experienced veteran of the climate wars advised that the incoming president would "be able to claim a mandate to lead boldly" on carbon pollution. The memo recommended that Obama take immediate steps to design a plan of attack by setting up a SWAT team of key advisers and congressional leaders. "The president must seize the debate," the memo warned, "before others hijack or derail it."
Obama's first moves on the climate front were encouraging. He appointed Carol Browner, head of the EPA under Bill Clinton and a close confidante of Al Gore, as "climate czar," and he named Steven Chu, a respected scientist who understood the need to confront global warming, as energy secretary. A month after taking office, he also moved to implement a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court empowering the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The threat to Big Coal and Big Oil was implicit: If energy interests balked at working with Congress to create a new system to curb carbon pollution, the administration would simply unleash federal regulators. "If Congress does nothing," warned Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was spearheading climate legislation as chair of the Senate environment committee, "we will be watching EPA do our job."
Obama also had something else going for him: The man he had defeated for president was one of the chief backers of a bipartisan plan to rein in climate-warming pollution. It was widely assumed that John McCain, who had co-sponsored a plan known as "cap and trade" with Democrat Joe Lieberman back in 2003, would be a crucial ally in selling tough, effective carbon limits to his GOP colleagues in the Senate. At root, cap-and-trade is a fairly simple idea: The government sets an economywide cap on carbon-dioxide emissions by issuing a fixed number of permits for carbon pollution each year. Those permits can then be traded on the open market, enabling polluters to decide for themselves whether it's cheaper to cut emissions or buy permits. The same approach worked spectacularly well in curbing acid rain two decades ago, reducing sulfur dioxide pollution far faster and cheaper than anyone had anticipated. Celebrated as one of the great success stories of the environmental movement, the program has spawned a number of imitators, including a European market for carbon emissions that got under way in 2005, as well as a statewide carbon-trading system under development in California. That's not to say there aren't problems with cap-and-trade; tracking CO2 from millions of sources poses a daunting challenge, and granting too many loopholes known as "carbon offsets" could render the entire system meaningless. But the plan enjoyed wide support among environmentalists, economists and business leaders as the fastest, cheapest and most politically viable way to cut climate-warming pollution. "The most important thing," Chu told Rolling Stone last spring, "is to get the architecture in place and to begin to move in a new direction."
Any plans Obama had to move quickly on climate legislation, however, were derailed by the economic disaster he inherited from the Bush administration. As the new president scrambled to bail out Wall Street, keep GM afloat and win approval for a $787 billion plan to stimulate the economy (including $80 billion for clean energy and green jobs), reining in carbon pollution dropped lower and lower on the list of pressing demands. "In the midst of the worst recession in a generation," says Jason Grumet, who served as Obama's top energy adviser during the campaign, "climate change isn't what leaps to mind for the average voter." When it came time to set his legislative agenda, Obama decided to make health care, rather than global warming, his top priority. "Health care has a populist feel to it," explains a campaign insider. "It's much more the kind of meat-and-potatoes issue that Obama feels comfortable with."
The decision to put health care first infuriated some activists, who feared the president would be unable to win climate legislation in time for Copenhagen. "Why not push a climate bill as Green Stimulus, Part Two?" asks one top environmental economist. But leaders in the House had already decided to push through a climate bill on their own — even without strong public support from the White House. Taking the lead on the measure was Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey, head of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. As one climate activist close to the administration steamed, "What good is health care on a dead planet?"
Waxman and Markey's bill — the American Clean Energy and Security Act — was hardly a silver bullet aimed at the heart of Big Coal and Big Oil. It set wimpy near-term goals for reducing carbon (only 20 percent by 2020) and included far too many offsets (2 billion tons a year). All in all, it was nowhere near as tough as it needed to be to cut emissions quickly and stave off the most extreme consequences of climate change. But it did contain strong measures to improve energy efficiency, and it represented a crucial first step in creating the framework for a low-carbon economy. "The legislation now on the table isn't the bill we'd ideally want, but it's the bill we can get — and it's vastly better than no bill at all," observed Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize laureate.
If the bill pulled its punches on global warming, that's because it was based in large part on a business-friendly blueprint that had been laid out in January, only a few days before Obama was sworn in as president. Assembled by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of leading environmental groups and major companies like GE and ConocoPhillips, the plan called for reducing carbon pollution by as little as 14 percent before 2020 — while continuing to allow conventional coal plants to be built. The industry-driven plan prompted the National Wildlife Federation to pull out of USCAP, calling for action that "measures up to what scientists say is needed."
Still, even in its diluted form, the House bill alarmed many coal and oil companies. Foreseeing a showdown over climate change, the energy industry had been busy packing Capitol Hill with lobbyists. By last year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had soared by more than fivefold since 2003, to a total of 2,810 — or five lobbyists for every lawmaker in Washington. "I had no idea this many lobbyists even existed in Washington," says former senator Tim Wirth, now head of the United Nations Foundation. Only 138 of the lobbyists were pushing for alternative energy — the rest were heavily weighted toward the old fossil-fuel mafia, most of whom oppose tough carbon caps. The most aggressive foes were coal polluters like Peabody Energy and the Southern Company, an Atlanta-based utility known for its prowess on Capitol Hill. "They're kneecap breakers," says one congressional staffer.
For Southern and Peabody, as well as for oil giants like ExxonMobil, the Waxman-Markey bill meant war: If they could kill it, they could not only stall action on climate at home, they could also wreck the chances for an international deal in Copenhagen. These companies had spent decades funding studies that undermined the science of global warming, using tactics honed by the tobacco industry to sow doubt and confusion in hopes of staving off regulation. Now, they switched their line of attack. Rather than arguing that global warming isn't real, they tried to shift the fear from climate change to the specter of a massive government intervention. The climate bill, they argued, was nothing more than a national energy tax that would cause energy prices to skyrocket and destroy American jobs. As evidence, they pointed to a study by the Heritage Foundation, long a purveyor of junk science favored by the energy industry. (The conservative think tank has received at least $500,000 from ExxonMobil and $3 million from funders with ties to Koch Industries, a major oil-refining company.) Not surprisingly, the Heritage study predicted economic disaster if the climate bill were signed into law: Electricity rates would jump by 90 percent, gas prices would increase by 74 percent, the average energy bill would rise by $1,500 a year, and as many as 2.5 million jobs would disappear.
This, of course, was complete bullsh_t. The most credible analysis of the bill, from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, found that the measure would cost most families no more than $175 a year — the equivalent of "about a postage stamp a day," Markey says. But the Heritage Foundation is nothing if not a big, well-greased disinformation machine. "We noticed that every time a constituent came in to talk to us about the bill, they would be quoting the same numbers," says one congressional staffer. "We knew they were a lie, but they were everywhere."
Energy lobbyists found a willing ally in the Republican Party, which had decided to deny any legislative victory to President Obama — even if it meant cooking the planet in the process. Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas who had been replaced by Waxman as chair of the House energy committee, pledged to launch "crafty" attacks on the climate bill, comparing the GOP's battle plan to "guerrilla warfare."
"I talked to Joe Barton as this process began, expressing a desire to work together with him on this," recalls Waxman. "He told me he didn't believe in the science of global warming, didn't think it was a problem and didn't want to try to solve it."
A key element of the "crafty" tactics employed by the Republicans involved a simple approach: lying. Cap-and-trade, they argued, should really be called "cap-and-tax." Throughout the debate, GOP members of the House cited a study by MIT that, they claimed, showed the climate bill would "cost every American family up to $3,100 per year in higher energy prices." John Reilly, an MIT professor and one of the authors of the study, called House Republicans and protested that they were distorting his findings. But a week later, House Minority Leader John Boehner used the $3,100 figure again, and the National Republican Congressional Committee employed it in dozens of press releases. Reilly sent a blunt letter to Boehner and Markey's committee, noting that $3,100 was actually "ten times the correct estimate, which is approximately $340."
But deception wasn't the only card that House Republicans had to play. As the climate bill moved through Waxman's committee, Barton and his troops fell back on tactical games to stall the measure. Before the committee voted, Barton threatened to have the entire 900-plus-page bill read aloud, hoping that Democrats would get sick of the delay and simply walk out. When Barton discovered that the committee had brought in a speed-reader to tear through the bill, he relented. But as the ranking Republican on the committee, he tied up the process by introducing 400 amendments designed to weaken or stall the bill. By the time the measure came to a vote last June, however, it had become clear that Barton and his fellow Republicans weren't the only ones listening to lobbyists from the energy industry.
Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from the coal fields of southern Virginia, is a dapper little guy with a large forehead and big round glasses. He wears nice suits and well-polished shoes — you could easily mistake him for a Wall Street analyst. With Boucher, however, the smell of money comes not from swapping derivatives but from burning carbon. Boucher is the House's top recipient of cash from Big Coal, raking in nearly twice as many contributions — more than $144,000 last year — as any other congressman. The climate bill was his moment to shine. "The negotiations between Boucher, Waxman and the coal industry were the crucible in which this deal was done," says Jason Grumet, Obama's energy adviser. "Without it, there would be no legislation."
For the Democrats, passing the climate bill came down to a simple equation: how many favors they were prepared to shovel out to Boucher's pals in the coal industry. Without support from Democrats in key energy states, the bill didn't stand a chance. Waxman and Markey, both of whom had recently backed what amounted to a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, were hardly friends of the industry. But now they were willing to cut a deal — and so was Big Coal. Instituting a system to curb carbon pollution, the industry knew, would reveal coal for what it is: the nation's single biggest contributor to global warming, and a source of air pollution that kills 24,000 people each year.
To shift the focus of the debate, the industry launched an all-out effort to rebrand its product, spending $18 million on a high-profile ad campaign to sell Americans on the virtues of "clean coal." The campaign — paid for by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a front group for coal companies and utilities — was vague about how coal could actually be cleaned up, relying instead on images of hip hardware like Mac computers to suggest that technology could somehow solve the problem. What the ads failed to note was that the technology behind "clean coal" — known as carbon-capture-and-sequestration — is still a pipe dream. There is not a single commercial coal-fired power plant in the world that captures and buries its carbon emissions, for a very simple reason: The process is far too complicated and expensive. But the coal industry knew it didn't need to have a real solution — it could just tout the promise of new technology, without actually changing a thing.
To drive home its message on Capitol Hill, the coal industry spent $10 million on lobbying — far more than any other special interest devoted to climate change. (ACCCE says the figure includes advertising and grass-roots advocacy that most groups don't report.) And to make sure congressmen were paying attention, ACCCE's member firms and their employees, including top executives, contributed more than $15 million to federal campaigns.
The money proved to be well-spent. Shortly after the climate bill was introduced in the House, Boucher spent six weeks locked in backroom negotiations between his friends in the coal industry and key members of the House energy committee, where the bill was being marked up. Boucher had been chair of the energy subcommittee during the previous Congress, and he knew where the bodies were buried. "Boucher is a very tough, very smart negotiator," says a committee staffer who participated in the negotiations. "He knew exactly what he could get and what he couldn't from both sides."
In the end, Boucher emerged with a sweetheart deal for Big Coal. The climate bill was amended to include more free permits for carbon polluters, as well as $1 billion a year to support "clean coal" research. (That was on top of the $3.4 billion in research funds already included in the president's stimulus plan.) All told, the climate bill now contained $60 billion in support for coal — far more than the aid given to wind, solar and all other forms of renewable energy combined.
Even more striking, Boucher succeeded in switching a single word in the legislation that could potentially save the coal industry billions of dollars. When a draft of the bill was first released in late March, it stipulated that coal plants "finally" permitted after January 1st, 2009, would be subject to new regulations, which was likely to include a requirement that they capture and store carbon emissions. But in the final version of the bill, the word "finally" was changed to "initially" — instantly exempting the 40 or so coal plants currently under construction from the new regulations.
The polluter-friendly measures won the support of some big coal burners, including American Electric Power, the nation's dirtiest utility. But even with all the handouts, the industry's most conservative factions continued to oppose the climate bill. In the final hours, the lobbying went into overdrive. ACCCE spent $545,000 on what turned out to be a fraudulent "grass-roots" campaign, using a Washington consultant called Bonner and Associates to bombard undecided congressmen with fake letters, supposedly from the NAACP, demanding that they vote against the climate bill. The blatant deception — and the use of forged documents — was not discovered until after the vote. "It was old tobacco tactics, pure and simple," Rep. Inslee says.
By that point, the months of backroom deal-making had succeeded in diluting the climate bill and loading it up with tax breaks and subsidies for industry. By the time it came to the floor on June 26th, the measure clocked in at more than 1,400 pages. The all-important target for reducing carbon pollution by 2020 had been cut from 20 percent to 17 percent. The goals for boosting renewable energy were cut nearly in half. The EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions had been gutted. And instead of auctioning off all pollution permits, as Obama had promised during the campaign, the bill gave 83 percent of them away for free — up to half of them, in the near term, to industrial polluters. According to an analysis by Stanford University economists, polluters received $134 billion in allowances that weren't necessary to ensure America's industrial stability. The nation's dirtiest corporations, the ones most responsible for global warming, had just been given a huge government handout.
Still, even with all its flaws, the climate measure was the first bill Congress had ever seriously considered that placed a comprehensive cap on carbon pollution. And if the bill failed, it might be years before supporters had another shot. "We didn't make a single compromise we didn't have to to get the bill passed," Markey says. With the help of President Obama, who met with undecided members, the climate bill squeaked through the House by a vote of 219 to 212. Even with the president's efforts, 44 Democrats voted against the measure.
Markey believes the legislation will ultimately be seen as groundbreaking: "In 100 years, we'll look back on this moment and realize that 2009 was the year the United States finally decided to take the problems on our planet seriously." And with all its industry giveaways, the bill should have appeased opponents; Waxman, who has a reputation as a pragmatic deal-cutter, notes that the measure "represents a broad diversity of concerns and points of view."
But even in its watered-down form, the climate bill drew fierce attacks from Republicans. The eight GOP congressmen who voted for the measure were labeled "cap and traitors" by party loyalists, and several were told they will face primary challenges next year. The National Republican Congressional Committee also ran ads targeting a dozen or so vulnerable Democrats who supported the bill, including Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who had won his seat by only 727 votes. The ads — foreshadowing the fight to come during this year's midterm elections — accused Perriello of voting for the "Pelosi Energy Tax," falsely claiming that the climate bill would raise energy costs for his constituents by $1,870 per family.
To Perriello, this was the final insult. "It wasn't enough that the fossil-fuel industry got millions of dollars worth of subsidies and benefits from the bill — they then had to act as if the passage of the bill were Armageddon," he says. "If anyone should have been unhappy about that legislation, it was the environmentalists."
In the hours after the House vote, while Markey was celebrating with staffers on a rainy night in Washington, his cellphone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, calling to congratulate him. "I didn't think you could do it," Emanuel told him.
The truth is, the climate bill's passage caught the White House off-guard. There was no strategy in place to advance the bill through the Senate, no plans for a prime-time address from the president on the urgency of confronting climate change. "They were surprised by the bill's speed," says one insider. "They suddenly had to focus on where to place their political bets." Bogged down in the fight over health care, Obama faced a dilemma: prodding senators to get moving on climate change might derail health care even further, but waiting too long risked missing the deadline for Copenhagen. "The world was waiting for the Senate to act," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund.
The White House wasn't the only one scrambling to regroup. The energy industry and its Republican allies realized that their scare tactics on climate change weren't working: To crank up the opposition, they needed to crank up the fear. To do that, they adopted both the rhetoric and the infrastructure of the burgeoning Tea Party movement that had been formed to fight health care reform. Cap-and-trade, the Republicans began to argue, was part of Obama's master plan to strip Americans of their freedom. "The government is going to monitor where you set your thermostat, how much plane travel you do," declared Marc Morano, a former Republican staffer on the Senate environment committee who now runs Climate Depot, a clearinghouse for disinformation about global warming. "It's a level of control we've never even contemplated in America."
Never mind that cap-and-trade would cut climate pollution by harnessing the power of the free market — the virtues of which Republicans have been preaching for decades. The climate bill and its market-based solution was now transformed into an instrument of government control and communist bureaucracy. "They are going to take our financial systems, and then they are going to nationalize industry, and then they are going to nationalize energy," Glenn Beck said. Those who support the measure, he added, "have exposed themselves quite honestly, I think, as treasonous."
The trouble was, people weren't buying such nonsense: Polls show that only one in three Americans believe that addressing global warming will hurt the economy, and three in four support some kind of climate legislation. To create the illusion that ordinary voters oppose action on global warming, Big Oil once again relied on outright deception. Last summer, the American Petroleum Institute — the lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry — coordinated a series of "Energy Citizen" rallies in 20 states to protest limits on carbon pollution. In an internal memo leaked in August, API urged its nearly 400 member companies, including oil giants like Shell and Exxon, to quietly pack the rallies with their own employees. "Please treat this information as sensitive," the memo warned. "We don't want critics to know our game plan."
Americans for Prosperity, which was busy organizing town-hall brawls over health care, also lent its support to the industry's campaign to kill climate legislation. AFP — co-founded and supported by David Koch, an executive of Koch Industries — conducted a "Hot Air Tour" of America in which its president, Tim Phillips, would appear with a hot-air balloon and warn whatever sparse crowds the group had been able to bus in about the threat of "global-warming alarmism." The climate bill, Phillips insisted, would lead to "lost jobs, higher taxes and less freedom."
In at least one case, however, such hot-headed and misleading rhetoric backfired. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was working closely with energy companies to stop the climate bill, sparked an internal revolt when one of its vice presidents called for the science behind climate change to be put on trial — a public spectacle he predicted would represent "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century." The statement was so idiotic that it inspired eight major companies, including energy giants Exelon and PG&E, to quit the Chamber. In his resignation letter, CEO Peter Darbee of PG&E denounced the Chamber for its "extreme position" on global warming and its "disingenuous attempts to distort the reality" of climate change.
While Big Oil and Big Coal worked to whip up public hysteria, their Republican allies moved to block the climate bill in the Senate. The most unexpected and influential voice proved to be John McCain, who had long been a champion of climate legislation. The Arizona senator was highly respected by environmental and business leaders for his grasp of both the science and economics of global warming. Even while he was busy selling his soul to the far right during the presidential campaign, he called climate change "a test of foresight, of political courage and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next." But when the opportunity to show some political courage of his own arrived, McCain executed a bizarre about-face. The industry-friendly bill passed by the House, he now declared — a measure modeled on the cap-and-trade bill he had co-sponsored with Joe Lieberman — was "the worst example of legislation I've seen in a long time."
Senate veterans were stunned. "McCain is still licking his wounds from the election," says one insider who recently met with the senator. "He may eventually do something on this, but he wants Obama to come to him and ask for help."
The only Republican who has demonstrated any courage on climate change is McCain's old pal from South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham. In October, Graham partnered with Sen. John Kerry to write an op-ed for The New York Times, calling for Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass climate legislation. It was a bold move for Graham — and it prompted an immediate backlash from his own party. Republicans in his home state formally censured him, and front groups for the oil industry paid for ads attacking Graham. In one ad, a narrator talks about how the economic recession has "pushed local businesses to the brink" and raised unemployment to 11.6 percent: "So why would Sen. Lindsey Graham support new energy taxes — called cap-and-trade — that will further harm our economy and kill millions of American jobs?"
As they had in the House, Republicans in the Senate decided to obstruct the climate bill at every turn. Leading the charge was Sen. James Inhofe, the former chair of the Senate environment committee, who has not let the fact that the Arctic is melting before our very eyes stop him from continuing to proclaim that global warming is a "hoax." When Boxer, the committee's new chair, tried to advance the climate bill, Inhofe launched a number of procedural maneuvers designed to stall the bill, such as calling for more analysis from the EPA. "We all knew it was a game," says one Senate staffer. When Boxer finally forced a vote on the bill in November, Inhofe and his fellow Republicans on the committee didn't even bother to show up.
Democrats from energy-producing states — including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jim Webb of Virginia and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas — also tried to put the brakes on climate legislation, siding with Republicans who demanded that the bill earn a 60-vote supermajority for passage. By last fall, the Obama administration was forced to acknowledge that the battle was lost. "Obviously, we'd like to be through the process," Browner, the new climate czar, conceded in October. "But that's not going to happen. We will go to Copenhagen with whatever we have." Inhofe put it even more bluntly. "We won, you lost," he boasted to Boxer's face. "Get a life."
The Senate's failure to act helped torpedo the talks in Copenhagen, which not only failed to produce a binding treaty but postponed meaningful action until 2015. It has also left Obama with no clear strategy of how to move forward. "We're staring into the abyss," says Dan Dudek, chief economist for the Environmental Defense Fund. The best hope is that Democrats manage to pass a climate bill this spring, paving the way for an international treaty that will cut carbon pollution before rising sea levels engulf low-lying nations. "It's really about getting people to focus on fact and not fiction," says Sen. Kerry, who will play a key role in guiding legislation through the Senate. "As long as we can argue this on real science — not on phony numbers trumped up to scare people — I believe we can get to the place where people realize that curbing climate change will strengthen America's economy and enhance our security."
Maybe so. But the most disturbing achievement of the energy industry in the battle over global warming is its success in lowering our expectations. Climate activists like to talk about mobilizing all of America's resources, as we did during World War II, to fight global warming. But as the failure to pass the climate bill reveals, it may be easier to defeat a dictator like Hitler than to overcome internal threats to our future as powerful as Big Coal and Big Oil. Despite the near-certainty of a climate catastrophe, there are no crowds marching in the streets to demand action, no prime-time speech from President Obama. Even the most aggressive climate legislation the Senate might pass — something on par with the House bill — will still fall tragically short of what climate scientists tell us needs to be done to avoid the looming chaos and destruction. In that sense — the only one that ultimately matters — the battle over global warming may already be over.
Are climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists?
New research finds that sceptics also tend to support conspiracy theories such as the moon landing being faked
It's time to come clean: climate change is a hoax. And the moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job, and the CIA is hiding the identity of the gunman on the grassy knoll.
It might seem odd to lump climate change – a scientific theory supported by thousands of peer-reviewed papers and hundreds of independent lines of evidence – with conspiracy theories like these. But new research to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science has found a link between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of established facts about climate science.
In a survey of more than 1,000 readers of websites related to climate change, people who agreed with free market economic principles and endorsed conspiracy theories were more likely to dispute that human-caused climate change was a reality.
Stephen Lewandowsky and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia posted a link to an online questionnaire on eight climate-related blogs with a diverse readership, in order to capture people's views about economics, science and conspiracy theories. Five "sceptic" (or "sceptic-leaning") blogs were also approached but declined to post the link – interesting in and of itself, given the frequent claim that sceptical views are excluded from mainstream debates.
What they found was remarkable. People who endorsed conspiracy theories such as "9/11 was an inside job" and "the moon landings were faked", were also more likely to reject established scientific facts about climate change, such as "I believe that the burning of fossil fuels on the scale observed over the last 50 years has increased atmospheric temperatures to an appreciable degree."
Clearly, a self-selecting sample of blog users is not representative of the wider population. But this is precisely why the researchers targeted this group: in the cut-throat world of climate change scepticism, this is undoubtedly where the action is.
Lewandowsky's research poses difficult questions for the climate sceptic community. Although they are not a homogenous group, they tend to coalesce around common themes relating to the reality and seriousness of climate change. The findings suggest that at least some proportion of the people who consider themselves sceptical about climate change are also willing to entertain conspiracy theories that are not taken seriously in mainstream society.
All scientists are sceptics: it is a healthy, everyday part of the process of systematically weighing up evidence and reaching a considered conclusion. But if vocal online opponents of climate change science also do not accept basic historical truths about society, can their position really be described as "scepticism"?
The findings provide yet more evidence that a rejection of climate science has more to with ideological views than scientific literacy, bolstering the well-supported finding that climate change scepticism is more likely to be found on the right, than on the left of politics. But they go a step further, adding an important layer of detail to the crude characterisation of climate change scepticism as a "conservative" issue.
The link between endorsing conspiracy theories and rejecting climate science facts suggests that it is the libertarian instinct to stick two fingers up at the mainstream – whatever the issue – that is important. Because a radical libertarian streak is the hallmark of free-market economics, and because free market views are popular on the political right, this is where climate change scepticism is most likely to be found.
The findings also suggest that talk of a 'consensus' on climate change is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the weight of scientific evidence showing that humans are changing the climate is a powerful argument for taking action to prevent its dangerous effects. But the very notion of consensual agreement is also a red flag to libertarians, who distrust statements about consensus on principle.
All of this suggests that the battle to overcome climate scepticism – if that is even a useful way of thinking about it – will not be won by simply restating the scientific facts. The problem is that "the facts" are not "the facts" for a small proportion of people – and the noise made by this minority group dilutes the otherwise clear signal about climate change received by the wider population.
Climate change is a scientific entity, but one given meaning through the social, political and economic lenses we view it through. The challenge of engaging with climate change sceptics is finding the lens that better fits their ideological views – not just shouting the science more loudly.
Greenland's ice sheet melt: a sensational picture of a blunt fact
Once you look at the colour coding and absorb what it means it is a mapping of potential climate change catastrophe
Jonathan Jones guardian.co.uk, Friday 27 July 2012 12.02 BST
The Greenland ice sheet on July 8, left, and four days later on the right. An estimated 97% of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. Photograph: Nasa
This is the most frightening picture you will ever see. The information expressed visually here can be summed up in three words: change or die. So let's take a closer look.
These two juxtaposed images of Greenland are based on observations by satellites monitored by Nasa. The view on the left synthesises their collective view of this inhospitable landmass in the Arctic Circle on 8 July 2012. That on the right shows what Greenland looked like to the same satellites on 12 July, just four days later. A huge amount of ice has melted in an extremely unusual Arctic heatwave.
It's important to appreciate the colour coding of this visible science. Areas marked in white are places where no surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet has taken place. Areas in pale pink were seen by just one satellite to undergo surface melting. Areas in dark pink were seen by two or three satellites to undergo surface melting.
Let's also be clear about what "surface melting" means. The Greenland icecsheet has not vanished. Parts of it are two miles deep: the entire area it covers is six times bigger than Britain. That's a vast quantity of ice. Every summer, parts of the surface of this immense frozen world melt. Temporary lakes even appear on top of the ancient ice mass. Such activity on the surface of the ice sheet has been observed to be growing. But nothing prepared Nasa scientists analysing satellite data this month for the information visualised here. According to these images, 97% of the surface of Greenland's frozen interior saw a sudden summer melt this month. That is a spectacular departure from the expected.
It has happened before – in 1889. Glaciologist Laura Koenig, part of the Nasa team interpreting the data, said that ice cores show this kind of warm summer effect causes unusual melting about every 150 years, so "this event is right on time … but if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome."
I am going out of my way to stress the cautious view of these spectacularly contrasting images of Greenland. The ice sheet has not vanished, it just went soft at the top. Even this massive area of surface melt can be seen as a one-off summer event recurring twice every three centuries. But … we know this is not the only evidence that the Arctic is losing ice. This picture of sudden change does not come out of the blue, or the white. It is the kind of thing alarmists have been predicting for years. Yet here it is, blunt fact. It is the sceptics who are irrational, revelling in delusion. Here is the reality, clear as day.
The effects of global warming caused by human action are worryingly visible here. But what effect will this clear and spectacular evidence have? When it comes to climate change the human ability to ignore evidence is as terrifying as the facts themselves. How is our technological ability to record and transmit information so far in advance of our ability to respond to our growing knowledge? Already, teams of deniers are probably poring over this latest iceberg of data chipping away until they can melt its credibility – just that tiny bit that legitimates governments in their paralysis and inaction.
Nasa could perhaps have designed this visualisation a bit less sensationally. To a casual eye, the use of white in the first picture might make it look as if the ice sheet itself has disappeared. If it does, we will not need satellites to tell us. This is about events on the surface of a vast and deep layering of ice. But once you look at the colour coding and absorb what it means it is a mapping of potential catastrophe. The picture is clear. Can we bear to look? And can the evidence of our eyes make us act?
Analysis: Evidence for climate extremes, costs, gets more local
By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle
Posted 2012/07/27 at 9:00 am EDT
OSLO, July 27, 2012 (Reuters) — Scientists are finding evidence that man-made climate change has raised the risks of individual weather events, such as floods or heatwaves, marking a big step towards pinpointing local costs and ways to adapt to freak conditions.
"We're seeing a great deal of progress in attributing a human fingerprint to the probability of particular events or series of events," said Christopher Field, co-chairman of a U.N. report due in 2014 about the impacts of climate change.
Experts have long blamed a build-up of greenhouse gas emissions for raising worldwide temperatures and causing desertification, floods, droughts, heatwaves, more powerful storms and rising sea levels.
But until recently they have said that naturally very hot, wet, cold, dry or windy weather might explain any single extreme event, like the current drought in the United States or a rare melt of ice in Greenland in July.
But for some extremes, that is now changing.
A study this month, for instance, showed that greenhouse gas emissions had raised the chances of the severe heatwave in Texas in 2011 and unusual heat in Britain in late 2011. Other studies of extremes are under way.
Growing evidence that the dice are loaded towards ever more severe local weather may make it easier for experts to explain global warming to the public, pin down costs and guide investments in everything from roads to flood defenses.
"One of the ironies of climate change is that we have more papers published on the costs of climate change in 2100 than we have published on the costs today. I think that is ridiculous," said Myles Allen, head of climate research at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute.
"We can't (work out current costs) without being able to make the link to extreme weather," he said. "And once you've worked out how much it costs that raises the question of who is going to pay."
Industrialized nations agree they should take the lead in cutting emissions since they have burnt fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases, since the Industrial Revolution. But they oppose the idea of liability for damage.
Almost 200 nations have agreed to work out a new deal by the end of 2015 to combat climate change, after repeated setbacks. China, the United States and India are now the top national emitters of greenhouse gases.
Field, Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth System Science at the University of Stanford, said that the goal was to carry out studies of extreme weather events almost immediately after they happen, helping expose the risks.
"Everybody who needs to make decisions about the future - things like building codes, infrastructure planning, insurance - can take advantage of the fact that the risks are changing but we have a lot of influence over what those risks are."
Another report last year indicated that floods 12 years ago in Britain - among the countries most easily studied because of it has long records - were made more likely by warming. And climate shifts also reduced the risks of flooding in 2001.
Previously, the European heatwave of 2003 that killed perhaps 70,000 people was the only extreme where scientists had discerned a human fingerprint. In 2004, they said that global warming had at least doubled the risks of such unusual heat.
The new statistical reviews are difficult because they have to tease out the impact of greenhouse gases from natural variations, such as periodic El Nino warmings of the Pacific, sun-dimming volcanic dust or shifts in the sun's output.
So far, extreme heat is the easiest to link to global warming after a research initiative led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Meteorological Office.
"Heatwaves are easier to attribute than heavy rainfall, and drought is very difficult given evidence for large droughts in the past," said Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh.
Scientists often liken climate change to loading dice to get more sixes, or a baseball player on steroids who hits more home runs. That is now going to the local from the global scale.
Field said climate science would always include doubt since weather is chaotic. It is not as certain as physics, where scientists could this month express 99.999 percent certainty they had detected the Higgs boson elementary particle.
"This new attribution science is showing the power of our understanding, but it also illustrates where the limits are," he said.
A report by Field's U.N. group last year showed that more weather extremes that can be linked to greenhouse warming, such as the number of high temperature extremes and the fact that the rising fraction of rainfall falls in downpours.
But scientists warn against going too far in blaming climate change for extreme events.
Unprecedented floods in Thailand last year, for instance, that caused $45 billion in damage according to a World Bank estimate, were caused by people hemming in rivers and raising water levels rather than by climate change, a study showed.
"We have to be a bit cautious about blaming it all on climate change," Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office's Hadley Centre, said of extremes in 2012.
Taken together, many extremes are a sign of overall change.
"If you look all over the world, we have a great disastrous drought in North America ... you have the same situation in the Mediterranean... If you look at all the extremes together you can say that these are indicators of global warming," said Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengabe, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
(Additional reporting by Sara Ledwith in London; Editing by Louise Ireland)
Climate results convert sceptic: 'let the evidence change our minds'
July 30, 2012
The BEST study found that the Earth's land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years. Photo: Justin McManus
THE earth's land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years and "humans are almost entirely the cause", according to a scientific study set up to address climate sceptic concerns about whether human-induced global warming is occurring.
Richard Muller, a climate sceptic physicist who founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, said he was "surprised" by the findings.
"We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds."
He said he considered himself a "converted sceptic" and his views had received a "total turnaround" in a short space of time.
"Our results show that the average temperature of the earth's land has risen by 2½ degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of 1½ degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases," Professor Muller wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times. Advertisement
The team of scientists based at the University of California, Berkeley, gathered and merged 14.4 million land temperature observations from 44,455 sites across the world dating back to 1753. Previous datasets created by NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Britain's Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit had gone back only to the mid-1800s and used five times fewer weather station records.
The funding for the project included $US150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, set up by the billionaire US coal magnate who is a key backer of the climate sceptic Heartland Institute think tank. The research also received $US100,000 from the Fund for Innovative climate and Energy Research, created by Bill Gates.
Unlike previous efforts, the temperature data from various sources was not "homogenised" by hand - a key criticism by climate sceptics - but, instead was "completely automated to reduce human bias". The BEST team's findings, despite their deeper analysis, closely matched the previous temperature reconstructions, "but with reduced uncertainty".
Last October, the BEST team published results that showed the average global land temperature has risen by about 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1950s. But the team did not look for possible "fingerprints" to explain this warming.
The latest data analysis reached much further back in time but, crucially, also searched for the most likely cause for this rise in land temperature by plotting the upward temperature curve against suspected "forcings". It analysed the warming impact of solar activity - a popular theory among climate sceptics - but found that, over the past 250 years, the contribution of the sun is "consistent with zero".
Volcanic eruptions were found to have caused "short dips" in the temperature rise in the period from 1750 to 1850, but "only weak analogs" in the 20th century.
"Much to my surprise, by far the best match came to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice," Professor Muller said. "While this doesn't prove that global warming is caused by human greenhouse gases, it is currently the best explanation we have found, and sets the bar for alternative explanations."
Professor Muller said his team's findings went further and were "stronger" than the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In an unconventional move aimed at appeasing climate sceptics by allowing "full transparency", the results have been released before being peer-reviewed by the Journal of Geophysical Research. All the data and analysis may be freely scrutinised at the BEST website.
This follows the pattern of previous BEST results, none of which have yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.
When the BEST project was first announced last year, the prominent climate sceptic blogger Anthony Watts was consulted on the methodology. He stated at the time: "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." However, tensions have since arisen between Mr Watts and Professor Muller.
Early indications suggest that climate sceptics are unlikely to accept BEST's latest results fully. Professor Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who runs a blog popular with climate sceptics and who is a consulting member of the BEST team, told The Guardian that the method used to attribute human emissions to the warming was "way over simplistic and not at all convincing in my opinion".
She added: "I don't think this question can be answered by the simple curve fitting used in this paper, and I don't see that their paper adds anything to our understanding of the causes of the recent warming."
Professor Michael Mann, the Penn State paleoclimatologist who has faced hostility from climate sceptics for his famous "hockey stick " graph showing a rapid rise in temperatures during the 20th century, said he welcomed the BEST results as they "demonstrated once again what scientists have known with some degree of certainty for nearly two decades".
He added: "I applaud Muller and his colleagues for acting as any good scientists would, following where their analyses led them, without regard for the possible political repercussions. They are certain to be attacked by the professional climate change denial crowd for their findings."
Professor Muller said his team's analysis suggested that there would be one and half degrees of warming over land in the next 50 years, but, if China continued its rapid economic growth and its vast use of coal, then that same warming could take place in less than 20 years.
"Science is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted," wrote Professor Muller. "I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered. I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes. Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done."
Climate change science is a load of hot air and warmists are wrong
August 2, 2012
Climate scientists' theories, flawed as they are, ignore some fundamental data.
IN THE theory of man-made climate change, two-thirds of the predicted warming comes from changes in humidity and clouds, and only one-third comes directly from the extra carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.
The theory assumes humidity and clouds amplify the warming directly due to CO2 by a factor of three: extra CO2 warms the ocean surface, causing more evaporation and extra humidity. Water vapour, or humidity, is the main greenhouse gas, so this causes even more surface warming.
Not many people know that. It is the most important feature of the debate, and goes a long way to explaining why warmists and sceptics both insist they are right.
The warmists are correct that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and it causes warming, that CO2 levels have been rising, and that it has been warming.
Serious sceptics agree with all that, but point out that it does not prove that something else isn't causing most of the warming. By way of illustration, if the main cause of warming was actually Venusians with ray guns, then all those things would still be true.
The sceptic's main suspect is the sun. While the sun's radiation is roughly constant, its magnetic field varies considerably. This field shields the earth from cosmic rays that, according to recent experiments at the world's premier atom smasher CERN, might seed clouds. Clouds cool the planet, so if the sun's magnetic field wanes, then it might get cooler here on earth.
We scientists can calculate how much warming results directly from an increase in CO2 levels. We know how much CO2 levels and temperature have risen since pre-industrial times, but the warming directly due to CO2 is only a third of the observed warming. The theory assumes no other major influence on temperature changed, so the effect of the CO2 must have been amplified threefold, presumably by changes in the atmosphere due to humidity and clouds.
There is no observational evidence for this amplification, but it is nonetheless built into all the models. Sceptics point out that if the extra humidity simply forms extra clouds, then there would be no amplification.
If the CO2 theory of global warming is right, the climate models should predict the climate fairly well. If the CO2 theory is wrong, because there is another, larger driver of the temperature, then the climate models will perform indifferently.
According to the latest data from mankind's best and latest instruments, from impeccable sources, the climate models are doing poorly.
The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990 predicted air temperatures would increase by 0.30 degrees per decade, and by 0.20 degrees to 0.50 degrees per decade at the outside. But according to NASA satellites that measure almost the entire planet constantly, the trend since then has been 0.17 degrees per decade at most. The climate scientists ignore these awkward results and instead only quote temperatures from land thermometers, half of which are at airports where they are artificially warmed by jet engines and hot tarmac, while most of the rest are in warming micro-climates such as near air conditioner outlets, at sewage plants or in car parks. Obviously the data from these corrupted thermometers should not be used.
Ocean temperatures have only been measured properly since 2003 when the Argo program became operational. Some 3000 Argo buoys roam the oceans, measuring temperatures on each 10-day dive into the depths. Before Argo, we used sporadic sampling with buckets and diving darts along a few commercial shipping lanes. But these measurements have such massively high uncertainties as to be useless. Since Argo started, the ocean temperatures have been flat, no warming at all.
The assumed temperature amplification due to changes in humidity and clouds exhibits itself in all the models as prominent warming about 10 kilometres up over the tropics. We have been measuring the atmospheric warming pattern since the 1960s using weather balloons, released twice a day from 900 locations around the planet, many millions of them in total, and no such ''hot spot'' has been detected. This is direct observational proof that the amplification is missing.
The climate models predict that the outgoing radiation from the earth decreases in the weeks following a rise in the surface temperature, due to aggressive heat-trapping by extra humidity. But analysis of the outgoing radiation measured by NASA satellites for the last two decades shows the opposite occurs: the earth gives off more heat after the surface temperature rises. Again, this suggests that the amplification assumed in the models simply does not occur in reality.
Government climate scientists tend to excuse away these failings, often blaming unmeasured aerosols whose effects are only dimly understood. These excuses wear ever thinner as the CO2 level continues to rise but the temperature plateau of the last 12 years persists.
There are huge vested interests in the theory of man-made climate change. They will soon have to face up to the fact that they have been unwittingly relying on assumed amplification by humidity for most of the predicted temperature increases, and that the amplification is not there in reality.
Dr David M. W. Evans is a mathematician and engineer who consulted full-time for the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Department of Climate Change) from 1999 to 2005. He says he changed from being a warmist to a sceptic after ''evidence supporting the idea that CO2 emissions were the main cause of global warming reversed itself from 1998 to 2006''.
The US is hosting a two-day meeting of countries opposed to the EU's controversial carbon tax on airlines.
Delegates meeting at the US Department of Transportation in Washington DC are exploring an alternative global solution that would include the EU.
China, India, Russia and the US are among the countries opposed to the EU scheme, which took effect on 1 January.
The US says the EU's unilateral action could lead to a patchwork system if other countries impose their own tax.
International airlines will begin receiving bills in April 2013, after this year's carbon emissions have been assessed.
A US Senate committee voted on Tuesday to move forward a measure that would make it illegal to comply with the EU law.
On Monday, airline industry groups called for the Obama administration to challenge the EU law's application to foreign carriers.
A letter from Airlines for America (A4A) and the US Chamber of Commerce urged the US to file an action under the United Nations' aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
The BBC's Kim Ghattas in Washington says the looming deadline to pay up and the prospect of a trade war next year may motivate the delegates in that city to find a way out of the impasse, though no breakthrough is expected this week.
American officials have warned the EU's unilateral action could lead to a patchwork system around the world if other countries start imposing their own tax.
US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has denounced the EU tax as "a lousy policy, a lousy law", saying the EU "should have done it in a more collaborative way".
The EU has refused to back down and has expressed frustration that opposing countries have not come up with a serious, alternative proposal.
The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) creates permits for carbon emissions. Airlines that exceed their allowances will have to buy extra permits, as an incentive to airlines to pollute less.
The number of permits is reduced over time, so that the total CO2 output from airlines in European airspace falls.
European officials say the scheme could force airlines to add between 4 and 24 euros ($5 to $29; £3 to £19) to the price of a long-haul trip, the AFP reports.
The European Commission says Europe would be willing to join a global scheme run by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) if it matches the targets set by the EU scheme.
Countries opposed to EU carbon charge for airlines fail to find an alternative
US-led group reaffirms ambition to implement previous commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions through voluntary caps
Reuters guardian.co.uk, Thursday 2 August 2012 11.20 BST
A two-day meeting hosted the by US of 17 countries opposed to the EU's emissions trading system (ETS) has ended without a joint declaration.
The countries, however, reaffirmed their ambition to keep working on an alternative framework to address greenhouse gas emissions under UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). They remain opposed to an EU law that forces their airlines to pay for the carbon they emit on flights to and from Europe.
"The meeting confirmed strong opposition to the ETS, but indicated interest in continuing to work on the suite of activities in ICAO," a senior US official said on Wednesday. US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates are opposed to EU's so-called carbon tax.
The countries plan to implement the goals and actions agreed at the 2010 ICAO assembly. These include a voluntary target to cap net carbon emissions by 2020, national action plans, improving air traffic management, and adopting an emissions standard for aircraft.
There was also broad agreement that they would continue to develop market-based measures that countries or regions could use to curb emissions.
However, while there was support for creating an international emissions trading or carbon offsetting system, work on the feasibility and implementing such a scheme would take "a substantial period of time."
"I don't have any basis for projecting whether there will be any agreement by the time of the 2013 assembly," the official said, referring to the body's next meeting of all 190 members late next year.
The EU was not represented at the meeting but a representative was briefed of the outcome.
In Europe, observers remained sceptical about the ability of the ICAO to deliver a global alternative to the ETS.
Officials said a US commerce committee bill that shields airlines from complying with the EU law sent mixed signals.
"The senators miss the point. Anyone can call for action at ICAO. It's been a hobby of many for 15 years." said Bill Hemmings, programme manager of Brussels-based lobby group Transport and Environment.
The EU's climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, tweeted that it was "noteworthy that there was no agreed statement from the meeting and nothing new on substance." She added that it was good that countries were promising to engage in the ICAO, writing that "the EU has done so for many years."
The EU's environment committee chairman Matthias Groote said the Senate bill was a distraction and could impede progress on a global ICAO framework.
"The US bill to allow their airlines to flaunt EU legislation is disrespectful and counterproductive," he said in a statement.
Democratic senator Claire McCaskill's office said the bill she sponsored with Republican senator John Thune would help, not hinder the ICAO's efforts.
Don't fall for comforting illusions of progress on climate change
Now that climate sceptics are emerging from denial it matters that the rest of us don't drop guard
Andrew Simms guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 August 2012 11.32 BST
"The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk," wrote Hegel on wisdom's habit of arriving late in a time of crisis. Will the final acceptance by some former sceptics of climate science aid effective action by nightfall?
It is all to play for. Global events leave only the most pathological forms of denial standing, and challenge dated economic doctrines.
The worst drought in half a century in the US mid-west coincides with the hottest first half year from January to June on record. The impact on crops like maize, soybeans and wheat – of which the US is a major world exporter – has been to push the price of the first two to their highest ever, and leave wheat at a four year high.
The domino effect on global food prices, the cost of livestock and biofuels is an echo of what happened in 2008 which pushed around 100 million people globally into hunger.
Meanwhile, Beijing's worst floods in 60 years were exacerbated by the poor infrastructure of rapid urban sprawl – drainage systems couldn't cope. In a world still urbanising that was a reminder of how a bad problem is made worse by designing-in vulnerability.
Greenland's rapid, four-day melt of surface ice was the kind of dramatic event that would be mocked for incredulity in a Hollywood disaster movie. We will soon find out whether its precise dynamics matched past, infrequent big melts on a roughly 150 year cycle, or were part of something far more disturbing.
Little comfort can be drawn from the increasing confidence with which climate scientists now identify the fingerprint of human driven warming in current, specific extreme weather events. Joint work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US and the UK's Met Office, concluded that last year's heat wave in Texas, which also devastated crops, was 20 times more likely due to climate change than natural variation in weather systems, while the 2011 November warm spell in Britain was made 62 times more likely due to global warming (compared to the 1960s).
In an appropriate metaphor for an Olympic month enjoying highly variable weather, the effect of injecting carbon into the atmosphere was compared by one of scientists involved to an athlete taking steroids. It doesn't guarantee an abnormally strong performance, but makes it much more likely.
Not every extreme event carries the same attribution to warming of course. The great Thai floods were considered not to, while droughts in east Africa were.
And, while the promised economic benefits of the Olympics appear to be missing London's retailers, the economic costs of extreme weather increasingly bite. Unilever, which depends on agricultural commodities, reported that climate change cost the company €200m(£157m) in 2011. At the same time insurers warn that 200,000 UK homes could become uninsurable.
Meanwhile, Britain was part of a G8 call to phase out fossil fuel subsidies but, under George Osborne's influence, has gone cold on renewable energy and thrown £500m to help marginal gas fields.
Bizarrely, the UK, with a high rate of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient building stocks in Europe, recently came top in a ranking of 12 of the world's largest economies judged by energy efficiency.
The problem is that where climate change is concerned, gallons matter more than miles per gallon. Among all countries in the international community, the UK ranks as the eighth largest emitter of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. In a different measure which looks at how ecologically efficient different nations are in generating life expectancy and wellbeing, compared to their natural resource use, the UK trails in at 41st place.
Now that climate sceptics are emerging from denial it matters that the rest of us don't fall for comforting illusions of progress. There are many great things about the UK, but a paragon of the sustainable use of energy and fossil fuels we are not.
With so little time left to pull back from potentially catastrophic climate it matters dearly which example we choose to follow. For a clear illustration, just look across to Stratford in London, where a certain large, multi-ringed sports event is taking place.
Danny Boyle's glorious celebration in the opening ceremony of what humanity can achieve through optimistic, open and collective endeavour, from universal health care to the world wide web, was an Olympic torch to follow. The oil company BP, the Olympics' hilariously chosen sustainability partner, is one to douse.