Four new reports underline the need to refocus the conversation on climate policy. The emphasis now should be on the national and subnational levels rather than the global. But who will carry this message, given the changing character and structure of journalism?

Two weeks after the traumatic explosions, the 24/7 “breaking news” alerts on the Boston Marathon bombings are slowly fading. Those events are still part of the news, but no longer eclipsing virtually all other news. Other issues, even environmental concerns, can also now be seen or read or heard.

In that re-opened space might appear news about Mauna Loa CO2 levels spiking, for the first time in human history, above 400PPM.* Or further news about how shale gas has transformed the U.S. energy market and thereby lowered, at least by the first sets of data, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Or maybe the news will be about China’s conflicted relationship with climate change: massive investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, but also a 60 percent increase in CO2 emissions since 2005.

But Americans who rely on mainstream media are unlikely to learn anything about the climate talks being held in Bonn, Germany this week. And that’s OK, one might infer from four new reports, because the global story is no longer the central story for climate policy.

One General Conclusion:
UNFCCC Process Can’t Achieve Its Goals

In November 2012, just as the 18th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was preparing to meet in Doha, Qatar, Nature published “After Kyoto,” a six-part special report on “the legacy of a climate treaty” and the UNFCCC process. The commentary by Oxford University energy policy professor Dieter Helm offered the most blunt assessment right in its title: “The Kyoto Approach Has Failed.” Rather than continue to struggle for a globally binding agreement reducing carbon emissions produced by each country, Helm argued, the focus should shift to reducing the amount of carbon consumed through goods and services. And among the easiest ways to reduce carbon footprints quickly is to phase out coal as soon as possible and to invest in research in new, more energy-efficient, technologies.

In January 2013, Globe International, working in conjunction with The Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, released the third edition of “The Global Climate Legislation Study.” A commentary just published in Nature Climate Change by five staffers from Globe International summarizes the main findings of the new survey: “At a time of stagnant international negotiations, national legislation on climate continues to progress apace.”

At the end of April, Australia’s Climate Commission released “Critical Decade: Global Action on Climate Change,” which focused on national and subnational actions undertaken by the United States, China, and Australia.

But the most extensive and accessible analysis of the changed conditions for climate policy is “The Policy Climate,” a report released at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on April 15th by Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), a non-governmental organization headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Brazil, China, Europe, India, and Indonesia. The CPI analysis largely concurs with the Nature, Globe International, and Climate Commission analyses: “global negotiations are stalled”; the focus should shift to what can be done at the regional, national, and even state/local levels. But the CPI report goes much further than the others in explaining how conditions for climate policy have changed over the last 20-plus years and in recognizing the need to understand and respect “the policy architecture” of each nation or community of nations.

An Overview of ‘The Policy Climate’

In the CPI analysis, five nations or communities of nations — Brazil, China, Europe, India, and the United States — will largely determine how Earth’s climate changes and how effectively humans respond to the causes and consequences of those changes. Separate chapters of “The Policy Climate” are devoted to each country or collective. And within each chapter, the report provides, for the major sectors of that country’s economy, easy-to-read charts that track greenhouse emissions since 1990, the performance of specific industries or practices driving those emissions, and policies formulated to address those drivers.

The chapter on Brazil focuses on forestry and agriculture. Since 1990, the rigor and coherence of Brazil’s policies have improved, with the result that “the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon decreased by 82 percent.”

The chapter on China, since 2007 the world’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, describes the nation’s efforts to lower the carbon intensity of its industries while still growing its economy. China has made massive investments in renewable energies, but it still depends too heavily on coal. A key policy challenge for China is to increase the transparency of the planning process within government bureaucracies while creating more places and possibilities for bottom-up innovation.

The much fuller and more explicit development of climate policy in Europe is reflected in the fact that more economic sectors are charted in this chapter than in any other. The report applauds the European Union’s success in reducing emissions — “In 2020 greenhouse gas emissions were 15.5 percent below 1990 levels while EU GDP grew by more than 40 percent during the same time” — but acknowledges that further gains may be more difficult to achieve, especially so long as Europe is “struggling through a financial recession.”

For India, the challenge involves “balancing climate policy and development.” “Even though India is one of the top at-risk countries for climate change impact,” as the summary blurb in the chapter states, “climate policy … is driven by development goals, not climate change.” India has, however, taken significant steps to promote the development of renewable energy.

Lessons from the ‘Mired’ U.S. Experience

In stark contrast with China, where national policy is never directly opposed, “gridlock” defines the state of U.S. climate policy: “The U.S. is mired in political infighting while comprehensive climate policy is nowhere in sight.” Nevertheless, evidence of progress on climate change can be found even here, which prompts the authors to draw three lessons from the U.S. experience.

1) “Even amid gridlock, … policies can make progress at the federal, state, and even local levels on emissions reductions.”
2) “Policies are more effective when they work with economic forces.”
3) Policies not coordinated by a national framework can still create synergies.

At the federal level, incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency, regulations on emissions and fuel efficiencies, and the promulgation of national codes and rating systems have produced some modest results. At the state level, experiments with carbon pricing, carbon trading, and other efforts to reduce emissions or promote energy efficiencies are underway or planned. Finally, there are the remarkable developments in U.S. energy production, especially shale gas. Even without a coherent national climate policy — and despite the skepticism voiced in the abstract for this chapter, the authors see signs of one emerging — these developments, the last in particular, have resulted in a 13 percent reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions. But more effective coordination of policies created for these different sectors and levels could reap further dividends.

The Changed Global Context for Climate Policy

The chapters on Brazil, China, Europe, India, and the U.S. — written by David Nelson and Thomas Vladeck of CPI — support points CPI Executive Director Thomas C. Heller makes in his introduction to the report and that he made, more succinctly, in his brief presentation at the Brookings launch of “The Policy Climate.” Progress can be made at the national and subnational levels but not at the global because the framework for global action is based on a world — and an economy — that no longer exists. 2013 is not 1992.

In 2013, developed nations cannot hope, as they did in 1992, that the end of the Cold War will result in a peace dividend. Instead they are struggling to free themselves from the hard grip of a global financial recession. By contrast, the developing nations of Brazil, China, and India established their economic footing far more quickly than expected and thereby became major players in the global market — and major emitters of greenhouse gases. And 20 years of frustrating climate negotiations have taught all parties that the long-established “policy architectures” of individual nations cannot readily be combined into one global architecture.

“To move forward,” Heller concludes, “we need to reframe the problem.” Sustainable economic development and growth is a precondition of effective climate policy, but one global set of policies cannot be imposed from above. Rather, policies developed by nations should be viewed as possible building blocks and confidence-building measures for global agreements.

The CPI report cites the German Energiewende (Energy Transition) and the technology-enabled shale gas boom in the U.S. as examples of national energy/policy innovations whose broader applicability and implications are still being weighed.

At the launch for “The Policy Climate,” these new energy technologies, especially fracking, attracted the most attention — and suspicion. In their comments and responses, Heller and Nelson of CPI, Jennifer Morgan of World Resources Institute, and even the moderator for the event, Katherine Sierra of Brookings, agreed that a meticulous accounting of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting, transporting, and burning natural gas is required before its suitability as a transition fuel could be determined.** And in response to a follow-up question after the presentation, Nelson added that forswearing new energies or technologies in favor of no-growth or de-growth futures are not viable policy options.

A Widening Story, A Thinning Press Corps

Although the number of reporters in attendance has fallen since the December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, the international meetings of the UNFCCC have been major media events. Reporters looking for the latest development in the climate policy story have known to look in the cities where these meetings took place. Where are they to look for this new, much more dispersed, story about climate policy?

And how many will be looking?

The CPI event in Washington received nominal coverage: two short newspaper pieces, one that appeared in two different papers in India, the other in the online version of U.S. News and World Report; two somewhat longer pieces that appeared in specialized Canadian (SNL Power Week) and U.S. (Greenwire) wire services; one press release summary (PR Newsire) and two calendar listings (AP Planner and Frontrunner); and listings in topical weekly e-mails sent out by environmental organizations (Environmental and Energy Study Institute and Responding to Climate Change).

The bombings in Boston on that same day eclipsed coverage of most everything else (see related story). But the shutting down of environmental desks, blogs, and beats at major news agencies is likely also a factor. To whom, then, will this new story be assigned? The reporter with multiple topical beats? To the foreign affairs reporter with an expanding region to cover? To a “general assignment” reporter, or to a multi-tasking freelancer?

The shallow reporting likely to be accorded a widely dispersed story covered by an ever more stretched corps of journalists might actually shape the process itself. For better or worse, events at Copenhagen and other meetings seem sometimes to have been driven by the bright light shone on them by the media. Will difficult compromises still be made if the failure to do so is not sufficiently reported to shame the parties involved? Or will perhaps more and better agreements be made if difficult compromises are not prematurely publicized?

With four reports coming in quick order to similar conclusions, readers too may reasonably conclude that the old global process — necessary and valuable learning experience though it was — has failed. And that it’s time to look elsewhere for policy successes on climate change. But whether those successes will suffice, and what the public will learn about them through the media and otherwise, remains to be seen.

*If it happens, this would be a seasonal peak. The global annual average level of atmospheric CO2 is not expected to top 400PPM for another few years.
**A new working paper from WRI makes a start on this process.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...