Friday, November 19, 2010

Europe Can Teach America about Energy Security and Climate Policy

Yesterday, published a column by Larry Bell, “Disarmament in America’s Energy Security Battles”.  I thought it was extraordinary, even by the low standards of opinion journalism, in its blatant disregard for the facts.  So, I wrote to Forbe's editors, in order to correct the record.  I've copied the letter below.  

I am writing in response to Larry Bell’s November 18 column, “Disarmament in America’s Energy Security Battles” printed on  This column is notable for its lack of facts and its assertions against renewable energy that simply do not have a basis in reality.  Mr Bell uses hyperbolic language and assertions that are simply not backed-up by the facts.As a favor, then, to Forbes’ editors and readers, I will attempt to put some real facts behind his statements, then you can determine whether his assertions are correct, or just hot air.  As the author of “Learning from Europe on Climate Change” in the December 2009 issue of Survival, I am well-placed to offer informative, fact-based analysis of energy security and climate policies. I would appreciate it if you would print my response in full. 

An unfairly maligned Spanish wind farm
First, Mr Bell asserts that the EU is facing “costly, yet unsuccessful, CO2 emission reduction efforts.”  In fact, the opposite is true – the EU has been successful in reducing its emissions, and at low cost.  Last month, the European Commission released a report stating that, by 2012 (the date for compliance with the Kyoto Protocol) the emissions of the EU-15 (the 15 Western European countries) will be 10.4% below 1990 levels, and the emissions of the EU-12 (the 12 former East Bloc countries) will be 36.8% below  1990 levels.  This means that the EU as a whole will reduce its emissions 17.3% below 1990 levels.  Alone among major developed economies, the EU will meet the emission reduction commitments it made when it signed the Kyoto Protocol.  In Europe, it is true, the cost of energy – both electricity and gasoline – is generally higher (rates vary greatly throughout the EU), but that is the result of long-standing government policies that encourage energy security, not a recent increases from climate policies.  In France, for instance, the cost per KWh of electricity is about 19.25¢, while in the USA, it is about 10.45¢. 

Mr Bell then goes on a rant against the wind industry.  It is true that wind energy requires high up front infrastructure costs, but he does not acknowledge that once they are running, there are no fuel costs – which can fluctuate widely – as there are with traditional electricity power plants.  He then cites a report from Spain, repeatedly pushed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, that has been widely debunked as based upon flawed analysis and untrue foundations. For instance, the report estimates that Spain’s renewable program created only 50,000 jobs, when official estimates are 188,000. The argument they make is that supporting renewable energy destroys jobs by causing the loss of 2.2 jobs for every 1 created.  It is based on flawed analysis, and it just goes to show that you can always find an economist to support your view.  It doesn’t make them right, though.   

Mr Bell then states that “high wind power premiums” get passed onto customers, while talking about wind farms in Texas.  What he doesn’t mention is that in his home state of Texas, the state with most installed wind power – about 8 gigawatts – the Public Utility Commission said “Wind generation has had the impact of reducing wholesale and retail prices of electricity.

Monday, November 8, 2010

US Climate Policy with a Republican House

Below is a blog post from IISS intern, Marie Steinrucke, with a good analysis of how climate policy affected the elections, and what that means for policy going forward.  I’ve presented it mostly unchanged.   I’m hopeful that there’s space for agreement and compromise on climate policy in the next Congress, but certainly there is some reason for pessimism. 

Since the Republicans regained control of the house on November 2nd, newspapers and blogs have been debating to what extent the GOP victory will affect possible climate change legislation. Opinions are sharply divided between those who believe that the election outcome will be detrimental for climate change action and those who say that the election was only marginally about the issue.

In analysing the possible effects of the GOP wins it is useful to look at how voting on the Waxman-Markey climate bill affected candidates’ re-election. In his blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Levi asserts that the issue of cap-and-trade mattered only in individual races, but did little for the overall victory of the Republicans in the house. Furthermore, when the bill did matter in individual races, it tended to be in those battles where the Democratic candidate was already in deep trouble. Samuelson and Bravender of Politico argue on the contrary, saying that many incumbent Democrats, particularly from rural, suburban and industrial districts lost their seats in part due to their vote on the climate bill.

The big question remains: how does all this affect President Obama’s big plans for energy reform? The truth may be that Obama has already accepted some degree of defeat on the energy front and realizes that sweeping reforms in the energy sector fall in the category of wishful thinking in the current political climate. The New York Times recently quoted him saying: “Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it is not the only way.” He was open to introduce smaller policy ‘bites’ in order to attract Republicans. Obama probably knew that any cap-and-trade policy was impossible, at least for now, when it failed to pass in the Senate this summer. The question will be whether Republican members of Congress will accept even small concessions on the energy front or whether they will categorically oppose reform suggestions in a harsh economic climate. President Obama is facing a new Congress in which many newly-elected members do not believe in the concept of global warming caused by humans and the new speaker of the house, John Boehner (R-OH) has labelled energy reform solutions as “job-killing energy taxes.”

Proponents of climate change action do have one victory to flaunt after the November 2nd slaughter. In California, voters vehemently opposed proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have reversed state-wide clean-energy requirements. In its reporting on the issue, the Christian Science Monitor called this rejection a sign that the election was about housing and jobs, not about energy issues.

Although one may argue about the importance of energy reform legislation in the 2010 midterm election, it remains to be seen how the shift towards a Republican controlled house will affect President Obama’s energy agenda. Will he be able to frame the debate in a way acceptable to Republicans or will they form a wall of resistance? The change certainly means that he will have to unite his own party on energy issues, a difficult task in itself. One can hope that the Obama administration will see its party’s losses as an incentive to re-frame the energy debate to make it more appealing to conservative leaders.  

Friday, November 5, 2010

Climate Wars: Not if, but When

Today, I am republishing a blog post from Jeff Mazo, the IISS' Research Fellow for Environmental Security and Science Policy.  He posted it to the IISS 'Voices' blog about a presentation given in London by Gwynne Dyer about his new book "Climate Wars". I've met Gwynne several times, and his analysis is always very interesting, even if the prognosis does tend to the pessimistic, as Jeff says below.  The difference between Jeff and Gwynne's prognosis is not only a difference in magnitude, but also the difference between how an analyst and a reporter look at these problems.  Why not buy both of their books and see for yourself?

Imagine this: sometime in the next 10–15 years, a tide of refugees heading north from Mexico prompts the US military to seal the border. With an increasing proportion of the US population of Hispanic origin, negative publicity from the 24-hour news cycle and online media such as YouTube leads to 'the greatest social division since the Civil War'. This is just one of the dire scenarios that might arise from climate change set out by journalist and author Gwynne Dyer at a discussion meeting at the IISS in London on 4 November.

His remarks, based on his book Climate Wars, painted a bleak picture of a future where water shortages and crop failures lead to mass migration, state failure – 'Somalia × 20' in Africa and the Middle East – and wars between countries that share river systems already stretched to the breaking point.

If Iraq had a 'real army', Dyer said, it would already be at war with Turkey over the latter's dams on the headwaters of the Euphrates. In South Asia, we can look forward to 20 years of summer flooding followed by excessively dry summers in the Indus watershed as the Himalayan glaciers disappear.  War – possibly nuclear – over water was likely between India and Pakistan within the next 25 years.

Dyer's scenarios are far more pessimistic than anything I discuss in my own Climate Conflictpublished in the IISS Adelphi series earlier this year. This is principally because he is looking at worst cases in terms of projections of emissions and their climate impacts, whereas I deliberately chose to take a more conservative approach. I considered a world where, in the next two or three decades, the climate impacts of global warming are of a magnitude similar to the normal background variation.

I have no doubt that unmitigated climate change will eventually lead to the types of consequences, if not the exact scenarios, Dyer foresees. The question is how soon we can expect them – in 20 years, in 50 years, in 100 years. The scientific uncertainty is quite high and it would be rash to take either version as gospel.