As if 2007 never happened?

July 15, 2011

If four years is a lifetime in politics, it’s an eternity in climate change politics. Events in Washington this week might make climate policy watchers wonder if 2007 really happened.

At issue is the decision by American Electric Power to put its plans for carbon capture and storage on hold, due to the weak economy and the lack of a U.S. plan to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide. Read the Reuters story about it here.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS for short, has been promoted as a way to make electricity from domestic coal without unduly raising the level of carbon in the atmosphere. Instead of sending the carbon dioxide that results from burning coal up a smokestack and into the air, the plan was to bury it underground. But that costs money and requires regulatory guarantees, and neither are imminent in the United States. Legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions bogged down on Capitol Hill a year ago and has not been re-introduced.

Sarah Forbes of World Resources Institute called AEP’s decision “a surprise, but not a shock.”

“Given that U.S. climate legislation stalled last summer, companies have less incentive to move forward with CCS, which has proven difficult to advance at scale,” Forbes said in a statement.

Compare that to what happened in 2007. Senators Barbara Boxer, John Warner and Joe Lieberman joined forces that year to focus attention on climate change and were able to shepherd a carbon-limiting bill to the Senate floor the next year, the farthest any such measure has gotten in the United States. Al Gore, the former vice president and perennial climate campaigner, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations’ Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change for bringing climate change to public attention.

On Groundhog Day of that year (why did they pick February 2?) the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment report on what was likely to happen in a warming world. The report forecast more severe weather, worse heat waves, dramatic droughts, wildfires and floods, rising seas and melting glaciers. It also famously said, with 90 percent certainty, that climate change was under way and that human activities contribute to it.

At about the same time as the report’s release, some of the biggest U.S. corporations — including some of its biggest carbon emitters — banded together into an organization called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The new group called on the U.S. government to “quickly enact strong national legislation to require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” Back then, that seemed a realistic possibility.

Also that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases could be regulated as pollution under the Clean Air Act.

Things have gotten a bit more complicated since then, with the economic downturn siphoning off attention from climate change issues that seemed paramount just a few years ago. Most of the U.S. climate regulations that seemed within reach in 2007 have yet to become law. A series of hacked emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia were used by those skeptical about human-generated climate change to cast doubt on scientific findings.

The Environmental Protection Agency started rolling out its rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions at the beginning of this year, but is likely to delay rules that would cut these emissions from power plants. There’s a lot of push-back from Republicans and many in the U.S. energy industry.

But the planet appears to be continuing to warm up. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s statistics for the first half of 2011 show that last month was the seventh-warmest June since record-keeping began in 1880. Arctic sea ice extent was the second-smallest on record for June. Combined land and ocean surface average temperatures for June were 1.04 degrees F (0.58 degrees C) above the 20th century average, NOAA said.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Eric Draper (Wildfires near Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, June 29, 2011)

REUTERS/Mike Segar (A man carries bags of melting ice during a New York City heat wave, June 9, 2011)

REUTERS/Carey Gillam (Ryan Speer examines his new crop of drought-ravaged wheat in Bentley, Kansas June 9, 2011)

REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom (Aerial view of the flooded Missouri River along the Nebraska-Iowa border June 24, 2011)

One comment

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Why does no one talk about the fly ash slurry (water and coal ash waste)containment field that failed and flooded the town of Kingston, Tn.? The facts have been made public through the Freedom of Information Act.

Forty-some other coal fired power plants through out the U.S. are at risk for similar failure. Power plant and coal mine operators are concerned about their investments and would like to continue to mine and burn coal. However, to address the problems of excess CO2 and ignore the dangers of waste that is created is myopic at best and more likely a willful omission by government officials who stand to benefit financially from the preservation of these industries.

The nuclear power industry presents the same problem, what to do with the waste. Solutions that only address half of the problem are not solutions at all. They are an attempt to dupe the public into spending a lot of money for infrastructure that would in the short run allow the coal and nuclear industries to proliferate. In the end we will have ecological disasters like Chernobyl and Kingston all around the globe.

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