Environment and Energy
Let's see, what unnerving bit of geoscience is going to drop on our laps this week? Michael O'Hare points to a grim new study in Nature about phytoplankton. Yep, that should do the trick. These microscopic organisms live in the ocean and account for half of the organic matter created on the planet. They're gobbled up by larger plankton, which, in turn, underpin the marine food web. Fish and whales depend on them for survival. And that means we do, too. And it turns out that the number of phytoplankton has been declining steadily for the past half century—down about 40 percent since 1950.
BP has capped its leaking Macondo well, but that doesn't mean oil spills are now a thing of the past. Up in Michigan, a million gallons of crude have sloshed out of a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. Governor Granholm has already declared the region a disaster area—and this may turn into the worst oil leak ever in the Midwest.
Don't look now, but cap-and-trade is coming to the United States—and there's nothing the Senate can do about it. Earlier today, California, New Mexico, and three Canadian provinces—Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia—unveiled a plan to set up a carbon-trading system for greenhouse gases by January 2012.
Is the Senate capable of passing anything these days? It turns out that even Harry Reid's stripped-down, near-skeletal energy bill might not survive a Republican filibuster. Here's The Hill's Darren Goode Republican leaders said Wednesday they cannot support the bill in its current form—mainly due to language retroactively removing a liability cap for oil-and-gas producers—and also want assurances they can offer amendments. What's this liability fight all about? A quick recap.
On a press call this afternoon, Senate staffers walked through the details of the minimalist energy bill that's hitting the floor this week. As expected, the bill will tighten up oversight on offshore drilling and lift the ceiling on the amount of damages oil companies are liable for in the event of a spill. (Naturally, the unlimited liability would apply retroactively to BP.) Plus, there's some money for the Home Star program, which will give owners rebates for making their homes more efficient, as well as various incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles.
Many economists will tell you that the simplest way to address climate change is just to put a levy on carbon emissions at the source (i.e., coal at the mine, gas at the wellhead, etc.) and use the money to cut taxes elsewhere. The price signal will nudge people away from dirtier energy and toward conservation and cleaner types of power. And now there's even a real-life model to examine. Back in 2008, the Canadian province of British Columbia passed a carbon tax that rises by $5/ton per year.
Will a hotter climate mean more immigration? In some places, yes, that's quite possible. Earlier this week, a team of researchers led by Princeton's Michael Oppenheimer published a study suggesting that as global warming causes agricultural yields in Mexico to decline, an additional 1.4 million to 6.7 million Mexicans could migrate to the United States by 2080. (The team analyzed data on emigration, crop yields, and climate from 1995 to 2005 in order to make their forecasts.) As always, caveats abound. The social consequences of global warming are always the hardest things to predict.
Now that the climate bill is dead and decomposing, some advocates are writing op-eds arguing that if only its backers had framed things this way or that way, the public would've responded more positively and demanded action from lawmakers. See, for instance, Lee Wasserman's piece in The New York Times today. Most of these arguments seem pretty dubious, though. As Dave Roberts argues, the climate bill's pulse went flat less because of framing failures and more because it's just incredibly difficult to get large policies through the Senate.
Enviro-types don't have much to be cheery about these days. Climate legislation has sputtered out. Jay Rockefeller is trying to delay the federal government's ability to rein in greenhouse gases. And the party of climate denialism is poised to grab a bunch of seats in Congress next year. So that means carbon emissions are just going to keep rising without end, right? Well, not necessarily.
Did a climate bill ever have a chance to squeak through Congress? Could anything have saved it? Politico's Darren Samuelsohn has a piece today about the usual, tiresome round of recriminations among greens after Harry Reid killed cap-and-trade. (Okay, technically Reid's putting it off until after August recess, but the odds of survival are grim.) The underlying question, though, is a good one: Peering back over the past two years, there were a few pivot points where things might have turned out very differently. What if McCain had won the election?