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Ocean, Thou Shalt Not Rise!

A scene in North Carolina, sometime in the near future.

Looking furtively from side to side, the climatology graduate student spotted a phone booth outside a convenience store, one of the few remaining pay phones in the county. Dashing inside, she inserted a few quarters and dialed the number at the secret lab.

The phone rang several times, then a man on the other end picked up. He recited an old song lyric: "Let's go surfing now, everybody's learning how, come on and safari with me."

Recognizing the pass phrase, the graduate student replied by reciting the countersign, another old song lyric: "It's getting bigger every day. From Hawaii to the shores of Peru."

Confident she was talking on a secure line, the student shot another quick glance outside the phone booth, then spoke quickly to the man: "OK, professor, I ran the numbers again on your climatology model. The sea level rise projected for 2100 is looking really serious."


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Nothing New About the Federal Government 'Picking Winners'

One of the more commonly heard bumper-sticker slogans that passes for discourse on Capitol Hill these days is that "government shouldn't pick winners" when it comes to supporting energy R&D.

Baloney, Norman Augustine, a retired Lockheed Martin CEO, said in so many words at a May 22 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing that explored energy technology innovation. Augustine, member of a high-powered business group advocating greater federal support for energy R&D, said "in the real world, government does and has to pick winners and losers every day."

And has since the earliest days of the republic. In helping to transform the U.S. economy from a rural backwater into an industrial civilization that has provided material abundance and a quality of life few would willingly give up, the federal government has picked winners in ordering the country's fiscal and monetary affairs, developing infrastructure, and supporting high-risk technology research.


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A Nugget of Conservation Gold in the Political Dross

Forty-seven lawmakers from across the spectrum are trying to accomplish a task that once was normal but lately has been a struggle: securing a bipartisan agreement on a transportation bill to authorize funding for roads, bridges, and transit systems.

The 47 senators and House members sit on a conference committee trying to harmonize the sharply different transportation bills the Senate and House passed earlier this year.

There's a nugget of gold amidst the political dross. Tucked into the Senate bill is a pro-conservation provision with a fighting chance of winning bipartisan acceptance: $700 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in each of the next two fiscal years. The Senate added the provision to its transportation bill in an impressive 76-22 vote. Now, several House Republicans are circulating a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to support inclusion of the Senate language in the final transportation bill.


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Lugar's Loss Reflects Our Diminished Politics

Richard Lugar ran a short-lived campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. His campaign didn't come to much and is mostly forgotten.

Still, I voted for him in the Washington State GOP primary that year because I believed then, and still do, that Lugar is an exceptional public servant dedicated to the common good. The man has more knowledge about critical issues such as energy, agriculture, and defense than purist ideologues could ever hope to acquire in 10 lifetimes.

With Lugar facing forced retirement, and other mainstream lawmakers like Olympia Snowe heading for the exits, the Senate seems to be a smaller place, a shadow of what was once known as the world's greatest deliberative body.


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Another Unsightly Billboard

If you live in or were visiting the Chicago area on Friday, you might have seen the Heartland Institute's billboards featuring mug shots of convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, mass murderer Charles Manson, or former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro saying, "I believe in Global Warming. Do you?"

The syllogism is obvious: if psychotic madmen accept climate change science, therefore accepting climate change science makes you a psychotic madman.

Heartland denied its intent was to implant such an inflammatory notion into people's heads. The billboards' purpose, Heartland said, was to get across its message that "the people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society."

Out there on what Heartland calls the radical fringe are marginal types such as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama. Also, Heartland's definition of the fringe includes such sketchy outfits as NASA, the American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and the national science academies of the U.S., Canada,, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.


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Taxing Topic: Energy Tax Reform

Every so often, usually at this time of year after citizens have finished sweating over their tax returns, there's a call for junking the tax code and making it simple enough to fit a tax return onto a postcard--which assumes the Postal Service can survive its current existential crisis and continue delivering postcards.

Earlier in the Republican presidential race, Rick Perry took to whipping postcards out of his suit pocket to make the point. In the energy world, there has been similar talk of doing way with all the credits, exemptions, adjustments, exclusions, and deductions energy companies take, cutting corporate rates, and letting the various energy technologies fight for market share on a playing field that is less distorted by tax considerations.

Tax simplification, whether a big bang that scrubs down the whole tax code or focuses only on the energy chapters, would be hard. Not just because lobbyists for this or that interest would swarm congressional offices like angry wasps, but the public itself is not of one mind on the issue. Individuals who would agree that IRS forms would put the patience of Job to the test--subtract line 44 from line 43, subtract line 47 from line 46, multiply line 48 by 15%--might not agree about throwing out energy tax preferences.


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4 Ways Get Clean Energy Off the Subsidies Treadmill

One constantly hears that in the world of energy, government shouldn't pick winners. Get the feds out of the way and let the market work its will.

People in the know understand, of course, that the emperor is prancing about in his altogether. Government has been picking winners since the republic's early days. There is no such thing as a Randian free market in energy and there never has been. The oil depletion allowance, for example, is the gift that keeps on giving since its enactment 96 years ago.

Brush aside the bumper sticker slogans, however, and it's clear that the salad days of federal funding for "clean tech"—carbon-free renewables and nuclear—are coming to an end. Spending is projected to fall from a high of $44 billion in 2009 to $11 billion in 2014. Renewables tax credits will expire at the end of this year and next, and the prospects for renewal are problematic. The Solyndra debacle gave loan guarantees a bad name...


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Enduring Lessons from the Titanic

After 100 years, what is it about the Titanic that continues its hold on our culture?

There is the human element - the quaintness of the bygone Edwardian culture, our revulsion at the rigid class separation of those days, the terror that passengers, rich and poor, must have felt as the unforgiving elements destroyed the "unsinkable" ship, the tragedy of 1,500 lives lost in the dark deep.

There is also our fascination with the arrogance of smart people who convinced themselves they could build a ship that would defy anything nature could throw at it and always arrive safely in port. How could they have fooled themselves so thoroughly?

Easy for us to say, but our generation is not immune to the hubris that was an author of the Titanic's doom. Titanic went down as a result of a cascading series of failures, the sort of sequence that brought on the Deepwater Horizon mess of 2010 and the Fukushima disaster of 2011.


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Dice Games in the Atmosphere

If you're playing craps in a Vegas casino, rolling 11 is an 18 to 1 shot. No one would bat an eye if you rolled 11 once ... or twice. Roll 11 several times in a row, however, and eyebrows would go up. The pit boss would likely take a hard look at the dice. If you're caught with a pair of loaded dice, you'd be looking at hard time in the state pen.

Why would a cheater try to slip a pair of loaded dice onto the table? To boost the odds the dice roll will make bets pay off. That's what the term "loading the dice" means. It means changing the odds.

When most of the country experienced unusual warmth last month (except for us here in drippy, cloudy Seattle, where we're waiting impatiently for winter to loosen its grip), climatologists with a knack for communicating climate science began dropping the term "loading the dice" into their conversations with reporters.

Whenever freakish weather imposes itself on our lives, a question that arises frequently is: Did climate change cause this (insert heat wave, drought, flood, whatever here)? Wrong question, climate scientist Dim Coumou of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told the Washington Post. The right question is: Does adding heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere boost the odds of freakish weather events? In other words, are we loading the climate dice?

An analysis that Coumou and another scientist published in a climatology journal suggests that the answer is yes for some extremes, such as extreme heat waves and torrential rainstorms. So, you can't definitively say the heat wave that blistered Texas last summer was caused by climate change. What you can say is there's evidence climate change has increased the odds of such heat waves occurring.

Bring it down to earth with a simple analogy. Drinking one can of a sugary soft drink won't rot your teeth. Drinking 10 cans of the stuff day in and day out for years raises the odds you'll be paying your dentist's country club dues.


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How a Climate Skeptic Defends His Electric Car

Change is hard. And it should be. Change can have harmful unintended consequences, as the seminal conservative theorist Edmund Burke warned more than two centuries ago.

Sometimes, however, change--prudently managed--is necessary. Which Burke also taught us.

The difficulty of making prudent change is exacerbated when new ideas get bollixed up in the power games, tribal suspicions, and egotism of partisan politics.

Take energy. It wasn't so long ago that diversification of our energy portfolio enjoyed wide bipartisan support, for environmental reasons and for reasons having nothing to do with the environment.

The absurdities that often drive D.C. debates recently have driven energy politics to a surreal state in which fossil energy sources are perceived as "Republicans" and non-fossil sources are "Democrats," with the exception of nuclear, which is sort of a swing voter.


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From Tennessee, a Ray of Clarity Breaks Through Political Smog

Ideologues and agenda-driven special interests have spent the better part of three years accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of stomping across the land in search of jobs to destroy.

One of the objects of such ire has been what aficionados call "Utility MACT:" the rule, finalized late last year, that limits emissions of mercury, acid gases, and other hazardous air pollutants  from coal and oil-fired power plants. MACT is an acronym for "maximum achievable control technologies," a standard set in the Clean Air Act for curbing emissions of mercury and 187 other hazardous air pollutants listed in the law.

Which gets to a salient point that Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, made at a March 20 hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee.

EPA adopted the Utility MACT rule because it was required by law to do so. Limits on mercury emissions are required by revisions to the Clean Air Act that Congress passed in 1990.

"If we don't like the rule, we'll have to change the law," Alexander said several times. The Clean Air Act told EPA to draft a rule, a federal appeals court told EPA to draft a rule, so EPA drafted a rule, Alexander helpfully pointed out.


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Americans Not of One Mind on Regulations

Americans don't like regulation. By a hefty margin of 12 points, a recent Pew Research Center poll showed, a majority believes that government regulation of business does more harm than good.

Except a significant majority of Americans want to strengthen environmental protection regulations or at least keep them as they are. Same for car safety and efficiency regulations. And workplace health and safety regulations. And food production and packaging regulations. And prescription drug regulations.

So, what's a confused politician supposed to do? Attack regulations as a socialist plot or demand that the government slam its boot on the necks of industry greedheads?

What they can do is understand that most voters are not the monochromatic simpletons that ideologues on both sides of the aisle treat them as. People can have complex, measured views on public policy issues that resist easy categorization. Answers to polling questions depend mightily on how those questions are asked. Words matter. Different words in different orders elicit different emotions and trip different breakers in our mental circuits.


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Someday, a Sun Storm Will Deliver More Than a Sky Show

Space weathermen forecast a slam-bang sun storm last week, but the promised thrill show of charged particles firing up temperate zone auroras sort of went pfffft. Not the weathermen's fault, of course. Like their meteorological counterparts called on to forecast atmospheric tempests, they freely admit they don't know everything about space weather.

NOAA space weather expert Joe Kunches told NPR that figuring out the magnetic orientation of solar bursts headed our way is a bit like a baseball hitter struggling to read the spin on an incoming fastball.

Well … legend has it that the great Red Sox slugger Ted Williams could do exactly that. Perhaps someday, a Teddy Ballgame of the space weather game could help us get a firmer handle on incoming solar wallops.

Because someday, perhaps soon with the sun moving into an active cycle, Old Sol is going to throw us a curveball that could inflict nasty damage to communications systems and the electric power grid.


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Old Coal Plants Shift Blame As Well As Costs

On February 16, the day  the Environmental Protection Agency's rule limiting power plant mercury emissions hit the Federal Register, the National Mining Association petitioned a federal appeals court for a review.

The group was quick to argue that FirstEnergy's announced plans to close nine coal-fired power plants was the fault of the rule. FirstEnergy itself made the same claim when it said the nine plants, totaling more than 3,300 megawatts of capacity and located in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, will be shuttered by September 1.

Not so fast, says a report published the same day by energy analyst Susan Tierney, who served as assistant energy secretary during the Clinton administration and as a Massachusetts utility commissioner under Republican and Democratic governors.

Tierney said there's a lot more going on in the energy market that is to coal's disadvantage than EPA's rules, which in any event, as other utility executives have noted, have been in the works for more than two decades. "The sharp decline in natural gas prices, the rising cost of coal, and reduced demand for electricity are all contributing factors in the decisions to retire some of the country's oldest coal-fired generating units. These trends started well before EPA issued its new air pollution rules," her report noted.

Let's unpack Tierney's argument. Since 2008, wholesale power prices have plunged more than 50 percent on average. Gas prices are at their lowest point in 10 years, but coal prices have continued a steady upward march, partly as a result of growing coal exports. What Tierney called "tighter price differentials" between gas and coal have put an economic hammerlock on coal-fired power plants, especially decades-old beaters that are less efficient than newer plants. The old coal plants have been sitting idle longer as a result.


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An Obscure President's Conservation Legacy

rutherford b hayes

It's President's Day weekend on an environmental blog site. What could be better than highlighting the good stewardship deeds of America's chief executives?

Let's run through several of the better-known accomplishments, and then turn off the beaten path.

Theodore Roosevelt ... 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 bird and game reservations, 150 national forests established or enlarged. Check.

Fifteen presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, have used the Antiquities Act to protect great American natural and historic treasures. Check.

Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone National Park, America's first. Check.

Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. Check.

Jimmy Carter secured passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which doubled the size of our national parks and wildlife refuge systems. Check.

Now, let's talk about Rutherford B. Hayes. Rutherford who?


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