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Monday, July 30, 2012

The belly of the beast

By Dave Fisher.

I recently spent three days in Washington, D.C., covering the Citizens Climate Lobby’s (CCL) 2012 International Conference

Over the course of the week, some 200 volunteer lobbyists from the United States and Canada ventured to Capitol Hill to ask Democrats and Republicans alike to support the Save Our Climate Act, introduced by California Democrat Pete Stark.

The act includes language that would set up a fee and dividend approach to taxing carbon. The fee and dividend is a pretty radical departure from the cap-and-trade approach that has been proposed and supported by many members of Congress.
Within cap and trade, carbon producers would be given a cap as to how much carbon they can spew into the atmosphere. When that cap is reached, emitters would have three options: continue to emit and pay fines associated with the overage; stop emitting carbon, which would essentially shutter the business; or buy credits from other emitters that haven’t reached their cap. The approach is similar to the catch shares that have been imposed on U.S. fisheries.
The fee-and-dividend approach would place a progressive fee on the first ton, and all subsequent tons, of carbon emitted by any producer, and return that money directly back to the American people through a dividend check. Think of it as a carbon tax refund.
On the surface, the fee-and-dividend approach seems sound, but within it lies the possibility of the dreaded positive feedback loop.
If the money from the fee is distributed to the general populace, more disposable income is in the pockets of citizens. This translates into higher rates of consumption, which leads to higher production rates and higher emissions of carbon, which leads to more personal disposable income, which leads to more consumption.
Another potential for positive feedback linked to climate change has to do with the melting of the polar ice caps.
Ice reflects the suns energy, while open water absorbs it. As the ice caps melt, creating more sea water, reflection goes down and absorbtion goes up. The seas become warmer, leading to more ice melt, which creates more sea water, which leads to more energy absorbtion.
Positive feedback sounds great on a Radiohead album, but loses its charm when it comes to our climate and the acceleration of climate change.
One would hope that the progressive nature of the fee — increasing at the rate of $10 a ton per year — would be enough to move the emitters (read: the fossil-fuel industry) from carbon-based fuels for production to more renewable means. But if consumption goes up, so do profits, and it may be some time before those producers see a big enough hit to the bottom line to actually consider less toxic means of production.
So, why is it so important to curtail the heat-trapping emissions of the fossil-fuel industry?
In the past two years, the United States has seen manifestations of the dire predictions of climatologists, who have long warned that accelerated climate change would cause more violent storms and more rapid shifts in weather patterns.
Let’s hop into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

More high temperature records have been broken this summer than at any other time since the recording of high and low temperatures began.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), from June 25 to July 1, some 2,171 record temperatures were either broken or matched. For June, that number rose to 3,215. In addition to the high temperatures across the country, an anomalous wind and hail storm — known as a derecho — cut a swath from Chicago to D.C., leaving more than 2 million people without power and causing at least 17 deaths.
The hot summer comes on the heels of an extremely dry spring that saw Rhode Island and many other states on the verge of drought advisories. Many states in the West and Midwest — where most of America’s agriculture takes place — are now in the grip of an extended drought that has driven the price of corn through the roof. 
Agricultural economists project that, by the end of the summer, corn prices may get as high as $9 a bushel. The average price for the past two decades has been between $3 and $4 a bushel.
The dry spring here is a direct result of a virtually snow-less winter that preceded it. Though rainfall amounts and streamflow in Rhode Island have returned to normal, groundwater levels have been slow to normalize because the snow melt that gradually recharges groundwater aquifers in New England was basically non-existent during the vernal season. 
The low groundwater levels don’t really affect the northern and central parts of Rhode Island — due to the fact that most public water in these areas comes from reservoirs — farmers in southern Rhode Island depend on groundwater to irrigate their fields.
Near-drought conditions also can wreak havoc on amphibian and anadromous fish populations, breaking links in the food chain.
Last fall, spring and summer were relatively normal — as far as the weather and temperatures were concerned — but the preceding winter saw almost unprecedented amounts of snowfall in much of the northeastern United States. Some Rhode Island communities were blanketed by more than 5 feet of snow over the course of the 2010-11 winter, straining municipal and state budgets and reducing commerce while snow was removed from roads and highways.
While there isn't a scientist in the world that would link one specific weather event to climate change, I heard one of the most compelling arguments connecting the two while I was at the conference, and it draws a modern parallel to that most American of pastimes: baseball.
Henry Louis Aaron, the real career
home run record holder
Barry Bonds was (allegedly) using steroids while he played in the majors. While he was (allegedly) juicing, he began to hit more home runs. Enough home runs, in fact, to break the career record of 755 by Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. Bonds hit 762 in his career. 

While one couldn't definitively tie any particular home run to Bonds’ (alleged) use of steroids, it’s not a difficult proposition to say that the frequency of his dingers is directly related to his (alleged) use of steroids.

The same is true for the seemingly anomalous weather events that we’ve seen in the past several years. While you can't connect any particular weather event to global climate change, the pattern suggests that the climate is being juiced.
If our federal government conducted hearings to determine if steroid use was happening in baseball, which frankly has little to no effect on the public well-being, why hasn't it convened hearings on the juicing of our climate by human activity, which affects everyone on the planet?
This makes the work of the CCL all the more prescient. Real people from all walks of life, standing up and saying, “Enough! Supporting climate legislation will garner support in your district. Not doing so means you will lose votes! Big fossil fuel money may fund campaigns, but you still need the votes to get into office.”
At the end of the day, climate change  — human influenced or not  — is about all of the things that the Environmental Protection Agency has been fighting for since Tricky Dick Nixon, a Republican, signed the Clean Air and Water acts into law: clean water, air and soil for all.
Thanks to the turnout for the CCL conference, I left the District of Columbia on Wednesday with a faint glimmer of hope that all is not lost. I’ll leave you with this:
When historical weather anomalies become the norm, what do the anomalies look like?
I shudder to think.
Dave Fisher is the managing editor of ecoRI News. He has a basement full of wide-brimmed hats and hand fans, just in case.