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Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

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Keystone, Science, and Politics

by Michael Levi

Jeff Tollefson has an excellent new piece in Nature exploring the debate within the scientific community over Keystone XL. It makes two things pretty clear. As a matter of substance, there’s pretty much no one beyond Jim Hansen willing to come close to endorsing the “game over” claim. Yet there’s still a ton division among scientists – it’s over political tactics instead. Ken Caldeira captures the situation well: “I don’t believe that whether the pipeline is built or not will have any detectable climate effect,” he tells Nature. Nonetheless, here’s his bottom line: “The Obama administration needs to signal whether we are going to move toward zero-emission energy systems or whether we are going to move forward with last century’s energy system”. That sort of sentiment is political– and there’s nothing wrong with it – but, as the Nature article nicely shows, it’s distinct from any scientific debate. Read more »

Reading Between the Lines of Obama’s Climate Change Plan

by Michael Levi

Anyone who reads a newspaper has probably heard about President Obama’s climate change speech today and seen more than enough commentary on its highlights. Instead of piling on, I thought it would be enlightening to reflect on five things that are buried in the plan released alongside the speech but could have important consequences. Read more »

Another Way to Think About Short-Lived Greenhouse Gases

by Michael Levi

Climate discussions of late have focused a lot of so-called short-lived forcers. These are substances such as methane and black carbon that don’t stay in the atmosphere for all that long but trap a lot of heat while they’re there. Analysts use global warming potentials (GWPs) as shorthand to compare these gases with carbon dioxide. For example, over a 20-year period, methane traps 72 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, giving methane a 20-year GWP of 72. Read more »

Could Cheap Natural Gas Undermine a Carbon Price?

by Michael Levi

Cheap natural gas has split the climate debate into two camps. One celebrates the development, emphasizing that natural gas cuts emissions when it replaces coal, and arguing that abundant gas reduces emissions as a result. The other bemoans the news, noting that inexpensive natural gas makes it tougher for zero-carbon energy to compete and arguing that this will ultimately result in higher, not lower, emissions. Read more »

The Carbon Price Equivalent of Blocking Keystone XL

by Michael Levi

In an exchange about the Keystone XL pipeline earlier today, NASA’s Gavin Schmidt made an important point: “Many things can raise the effective carbon price: tax, cap-and-trade, regulatory action (mercury standards, pipeline decisions etc)”. (I’ve taken the liberty to expand some twitter abbreviations.) That’s true. So what carbon price would blocking the Keystone XL pipeline be equivalent to? Read more »

Thinking Carefully About Tight Oil

by Michael Levi

A piece in Slate by Ray Pierrehumbert arguing that tight oil abundance is a myth is making the rounds. The essay makes some fair warnings against irrational exuberance when it comes to hundred year supplies, claims of endless energy independence, and complacency on climate change as a result of abundant natural gas. But the piece does at least as much to confuse as illuminate. Fortunately, that provides a good opportunity to look at a few important misunderstandings that frequently arise in discussions about U.S. oil. Read more »

Should You Pay Attention to the UN Climate Talks?

by Michael Levi

The annual United Nations (UN) climate talks are rarely a pretty sight. The typical script is fairly reliable. Negotiators typically arrive at each summit with mostly realistic goals. But diplomats and those who seek to influence them spend the first week or so ratcheting up demands and accusations, in part for leverage, but at least as much in order to make themselves look good and their adversaries appear villainous. Members of the media (if they’re paying attention) report that the talks appear set for disaster. Meanwhile, away from the spotlight, negotiators quietly hash through the substantive tasks at hand. Eventually, in the middle of the second week, higher level officials arrive. Occasionally, important differences prove impractical to resolve, and the summit collapses. Far more often, the parties cobble something modest together, apparently snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Read more »