Changing Climate Change Legislation

by Bill Chameides | November 17th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 19 comments

A new bipartisan bill was proposed on Monday. Is it real or a pretender?

Both shoes dropped over the weekend on hopes of seeing action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions: world leaders admitted that a global agreement on emissions will not come out of Copenhagen next month, and President Obama indicated that Congress would not pass climate legislation this year.

As opponents of climate change legislation duly noted their victory, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jim Webb (D-VA) added a new wrinkle. Both had been “fence-sitters” at one point or another on the cap-and-trade bills rattling around Congress (see here and here). But on Monday, they jumped off, announcing their opposition to cap and trade and introducing an alternative climate bill.

A Dirty Word?

The bill has at least one notable similarity to the cap-and-trade bills. The word “climate” doesn’t appear in the title of any.

The Waxman-Markey bill, passed in the House in June, is officially the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES); the Kerry-Boxer bill being considered in the Senate is called the Clean Energy Jobs and America Power Act of 2009 (CEJAPA); and the new Webb-Alexander bill is entitled the Clean Energy Act of 2009.

It would appear that “clean” and “energy” are PC but “climate” is not.

Could it be that the folks proposing these bills, designed primarily to address climate change, figure that if the word “climate” doesn’t appear in the title, the climate deniers in their constituency might not notice their congressional representatives want to combat global warming? Or do the congressional wordsmiths charged with titling hope that their climate-denying colleagues won’t realize the bill is about climate and so might vote for it? Or is the naming strategy built around the idea that whoever votes against it can be attacked in the next election cycle for being against “clean energy?” After all, how can anyone be against anything with the word clean in it?

No Cap, No Trade, But Lots of $’s

While the centerpiece of Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry is a declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions and trading mechanisms aimed at limiting costs, the Webb-Alexander bill sets no emission targets. In fact, it reportedly does not set any specific constraints on emissions of any kind.

What it would do is use federal tax dollars to subsidize the development and implementation of a select set of technologies that Webb and Alexander believe are worthy of federal largess. Specifically, the bill would provide:

  • $10 billion to back government loans (up to $100 billion) to develop clean energy that is otherwise too capital-intensive (read nuclear) for investors.
  • 100 million/year for 10 years toward nuclear education and training.
  • $200 million/year for five years for a cost-sharing mechanism between government and industry to enable the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to review new nuclear-reactor designs such as small and medium reactors and help bring those technologies from concept into the market place.
  • $50 million/year for 10 years for research to extend the lifetime of our current nuclear fleet and maximize the production of low-cost nuclear power.
  • $750 million/year for 10 years for research and development of low-cost solar technology, battery technology, advanced bio-fuels, low-carbon coal, and technologies that will reduce nuclear waste funding each at $150 million, annually.

Clearly nuclear power is very high on Webb and Alexander’s low-carbon hit parade. But energy efficiency, wind, geothermal … not so much.

The Shortfalls of Subsidies

In my view this is not a climate mitigation bill. And, if passed, it probably won’t even do much to advance clean energy.

History suggests that federal subsidies, by themselves, cannot effectively transform our energy infrastructure.

We’ve been trying to develop clean energy in one form or another since the oil shocks of the 1970s without huge success. Each attempt has involved some kind of subsidy or tax credit but has lacked a systematic approach designed to level the playing field through internalizing costs. (See related post.) Remember the Synfuels Corporation? Didn’t think so.

When we’ve focused on results, however, we’ve had more success at lowering energy use. Take the modest fuel-efficiency standards (aka Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE) for cars.

One trouble with using federal subsidies alone to develop low-carbon technologies is the crystal ball-like presumption that the government can know which technologies will work and which will not. In the 1970s President Carter decided that Synfuels were the answer. Despite all the $’s pumped into the technology, it flopped. And in the meantime there was nothing else in the pipeline to take its place.

The New Bill Is a Pretender

Now along come Webb and Alexander. They have their favorites with nuclear at the top of the list. Who knows. Maybe they’re right. (I don’t think so, and I am by no means alone — see here.) But the senators could be wrong. And if they’re wrong, not only have they wasted gobs of taxpayer money, they have lost us time, discouraged private investment in other technologies by giving nuclear a competitive edge, and kept at bay a potential unfunded winner.

The other fallacy of a government subsidy program is its ignorance of the real engine of innovation in America. The major source of R&D dollars is not the federal government; it is the private sector.

In 2006, total R&D expenditures in the United States amounted to a little more than $340 billion. Guess where the lion’s share of that money came from. It wasn’t the federal government. The private sector kicked in 65 percent of the total.

Marketplace Power Should Be Key to New Power Sources

The trick to jump-starting innovation and transforming our fossil-fuel intensive economy into a low-carbon one will be to catalyze and unleash the enormous leverage of private investment and the power of the marketplace to hunt down, develop, and implement the most effective technologies.

How best to do it? Many economists argue that market forces on their own will appropriately price the use of “dirty” (carbon-emitting) energy. When investors and entrepreneurs see potential profits in developing low-carbon technologies, they will flock to those investments without government subsidies. Some investors will invest in the wrong technologies and lose money, but others will invest in the winners, and through free-market enterprise our economy will be transformed.

One way to get there is through a cap and trade; another is a carbon tax. Handing out federal dollars is likely not. Which is not to say that government subsidies cannot help get nascent technologies off the ground. They are just not very likely to send the strong market signal needed for fundamental change.

It’s just a wee bit ironic that conservative senators like Webb and Alexander find themselves promoting federal handouts instead of tapping market forces in the case of climate change. I
suppose it’s just as ironic that traditional liberals like Kerry, Boxer and Pelosi are on the opposite side of the debate. You never know with these guys.

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  1. MattN
    Nov 17, 2009

    As soon as you, and everyone else, realizes CO2 is NOT a pollutant and NOT the all-dangerous boogey-man-runaway-greenhouse gas Gore wants you to think it is, the solution will become obvious. We have centuries worth of coal underneath our feet. Put our effort into burning that as clean as possible, and our energy is secure for generations. If you think politicins haven’t been clued in to the fact we can be energy independent for the foreseeable future with what we have right here right now, you should think again. They know if they pass the greatest tax increase in this nation’s history, their chance of reelection in November is below zero.

    • Peter G
      Nov 18, 2009

      The coal underneath our feet, dug up, and burned, is a sufficient perturbation of the carbon cycle to ensure an ice-free Earth. Consider the consequences.

      • MattN
        Nov 18, 2009

        Except the only place that the “evidence” of these “consequences” exist are in the climate models, programmed by (pseudo?)scientists who’s research grant is based on confirming the rapid melt-off of the planet by CO2. You’ll have to pardon me when I take that “evidence” with a grain of salt….

        • Peter G
          Nov 19, 2009

          To the contrary, there are multiple, independent, lines of evidence to indicate we should be concerned about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. For instance, the paleoclimate record strongly supports my statement above. Get a copy of the latest edition of John Houghton’s “Global Warming: the Complete Briefing” for an in-depth treatment.

          • MattN
            Nov 19, 2009

            Does he address why CO2 increases lag temperature increases by 800ish years in the ice core records?

            • Peter G
              Nov 23, 2009

              Sure, this is well understood. During past interglacial epochs, CO2 has always reinforced (what scientists call a positive feedback) temperature increases which were induced by changes in the amount of sunlight hitting the earth (that were in turn caused by changes in the earth’s orbit, not so much by changes in solar output). That’s what’s so remarkable about the current situation- it’s unprecedented for shifts in the earth’s temperature balance to be caused by CO2 increases. All the more reason to be concerned.

              • MattN
                Nov 26, 2009

                Negative, Ghostrider. It is NOT at all well understood. What is understood is that increase in CO2 NEVER preceeds increases in warmth, according to the ice cores. It’s not there. Anywhere. And the argument “just because it doesn’t start the warming doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute to it later” is nothing more than a red herring. The argument being CO2-warming is overriding whatever started the warming in the first place. That is just wishful thinking.

                • Bill Chameides
                  Dec 3, 2009

                  MattN: Have you ever heard of a positive feedback?

                  • MattN
                    Dec 10, 2009

                    Absolutely! Are you refering to the mythical positive feedback that increased water vapor is allegedly supposed bring? Too bad the preliminary information from the AQUA satellite indicates that it is actually a NEGATIVE feedback. Dr. Roy Spencer is the lead scientist on the AQUA project. Here’s what he has to say:

          • MattN
            Nov 19, 2009

            Sir John Houghton?? The same John Houghton that oversaw the 1st three IPCC reports? Yeah, no bias detected there….

            • Peter G
              Nov 23, 2009

              Matt, another way you might try to visualize the situation might be for you to imagine that all the carbon now buried in coal deposits was once vegetation… and before the carbon was in vegetation, it was all CO2 in the atmosphere. And at that same time, the Earth was so warm that there was no ice anywhere. Both poles had tropical vegetation and dinosaurs roaming under the midnight sun!

              • Ken Towe
                Nov 24, 2009

                Pearson et al. Nature 461, 1110-1113 (22 October 2009) Atmospheric carbon dioxide through the Eocene–Oligocene climate transition… “During maximum ice-sheet growth, pCO2 was between 450 and 1,500 p.p.m.v., with a central estimate of 760 p.p.m.v.” No anthropogenic CO2 involved.

                • Bill Chameides
                  Nov 25, 2009

                  Ken: 1. The Pearson et al. paper you refer to was looking at the earth’s climate more than 30 million years ago; in other words during a time when the planet was operating under a completely different climate regime. 2. More to the point, the authors concluded that the transition FROM warm TO glacial conditions occurred at a time when CO2 concentrations DECREASED. They write: “our results confirm the central role of declining CO2 … in the development of the Antarctic ice sheet.”

                  • MattN
                    Nov 27, 2009

                    1. That doesn’t change physics, Dr. Chameides. 2. As long as natural forcings are completely ignored….

                    • Bill Chameides
                      Dec 3, 2009

                      MattN: What natural forcings? Not the sun — its output has not changed in 30 years. Not the ocean — its heat content has increased not decreased. Not albedo — it has not changed in a monotonic way over the past 30 years.

                    • MattN
                      Dec 9, 2009

                      Sun) Yes, it most certainly HAS increased in output. The solar magnetic field has doubled through the 20th century. It’s easy to say that has no effect, when no effort what-so-ever has been made to quantify that effect. Ocean) Heat content has been flat since 2003, amazingly the same time the ARGO bouys went into service. And here’s a great discussion on OHC:

                    • Bill Chameides
                      Dec 11, 2009

                      MattN: Come on, you can do better than that. 1. The solar magnetic field: Take a closer look at Lockwood’s paper. Since the 1980s when we have seen the steepest rise in temperatures, the solar magnetic flux has been flat. In fact, in a more recent paper by Lockwood in Proceedings of the Royal Society (M. Lockwood, and C. Fröhlich; “Recent changes in solar outputs and the global mean surface temperature” Proc. Roy. Soc. A, 463, 2447-2460, 2007) it was found that: “There is considerable evidence for solar influence on the Earth’s pre-industrial climate and the Sun may well have been a factor in post-industrial climate change in the first half of the last century. Here we show that over the past 20 years, all the trends in the Sun that could have had an influence on the Earth’s climate have been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise in global mean temperatures.” 2. Ocean Heat Content: Surely you realize that five years worth of data do not constitute a climatic trend. If you look at the long-term trend in ocean heat content, you will find many multi-year periods when it was constant or even decreased. It is the long-term trend (the one that has been upward) that is relevant.

                  • Ken Towe
                    Nov 30, 2009

                    Yes, but in addition they wrote: “We also find a sharp pCO2 atm increase after maximum ice growth as the global carbon cycle adjusted to the presence of a large ice cap.” The original quote referred to the period of maximum ice-sheet growth and this was a period of steep increase in pCO2 (~ 33.5 Myr). This period in earth history serves to illustrate that large and rapid increases in atmospheric CO2 have taken place w/o the burning of coal and oil or deforestation ensuring an ice-free Earth. The late Eocene and early Oligocene were periods of luxuriant plant growth in an equable climate at CO2 levels double what they are today. The oxygen isotopic data seem to require Antarctic ice sheets as thick as those today with substantial ice in Greenland.

          • Ken Towe
            Nov 21, 2009

            Peter G… I think MattN understands intuitively your grok connection to paleoclimate data and your rather definitive prediction of an ice-free Earth. But these connections are both indirect and distant. Matt seems to be asking for the intimately part of your grok understanding, and a bit closer in time. At least 30 years are needed to see climate change…so-called base periods. From your multiple independent lines of evidence why don’t you tell him what the strongest of them is that specifically and directly connects the ~0.5 degree temperature increase with the ~30 ppmv increase in CO2 for the period from 1910 to 1940? The key words here are “specifically” and “directly”. Hint. Direct evidence is not found in supercomputers.

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