Wonkbook: Will we now finally care about climate change?

May 7

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

It's been more than 25 years now since James Hansen of NASA, testifying before Congress, helped bring global warming (and climate change more generally) to the public forefront. And ever since then, scientists and scientific organizations have warned the public time and time again — in public appearances, on TV, in papers or even in assessment reports — that global warming is not only real but very likely human-caused.

Polls show that a majority of Americans still say they accept climate change as real (in some polls, a smaller percentage when asked if they think humans are to blame). But, if anything, the public's concern on the issue has waned over time, and climate change now ranks near the bottom on the list of issues Americans are concerned most about. And a powerful wing of the Republican Party now is highly skeptical, or flat-out denies, the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are altering the climate, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

We’ve recently seen a number of climate change assessment reports — two by the United Nations, one by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and now the National Climate Assessment — and each of them reaches the same conclusion: That time is running out to act to stave off harmful levels of global warming. And each of them has been summarily cast aside by Washington policymakers, in particular Congress.

There’s no reason to think that yesterday’s release of the National Climate Assessment will have an outcome that's any different. But this report does offer signs that scientists are rethinking how they communicate climate change to the public: The authors frame the report not just in terms of hypothetical future impacts, but in terms of concrete, tangible impacts that are occurring now. And the report tries to use simpler, more general language. Climate change is a highly abstract issue, and its gradualness, complexity and lack of immediacy may explain why Americans simply aren’t that moved by it (let alone why many are skeptical). The White House  and scientists may not convince climate skeptics in Congress with this report, but maybe that's not the initial goal. Rather, they may hope to move the public-opinion needle, even if by just a bit. — Puneet Kollipara

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: More than 1/2. That's the fraction of the U.S. population that lives in coastal areas that are "increasingly vulnerable" to climate change.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: These 15 charts show climate change as it's happening now and as it might happen in the future.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Climate change is here; (2) first-quarter growth looks even worse; (3) who's paying their premiums; (4) Keystone XL make or break; and (5) the establishment does strike back.

1. Top story: Climate change is here now. But good luck convincing skeptics.

U.S. climate report says global warming impact already severe. "The government’s newest national assessment of climate change, released early Tuesday, declares what a wide majority of scientists say is clear: Americans are already feeling the effects of global warming. Heavy Northeast downpours unleashed by super storms such as Sandy, flooding from sea-level rise from Norfolk to Miami along the Atlantic Ocean, record-setting monster wildfires in several Western states, a crop-destroying heat wave in the Midwest, and drought that has parched southern California, have all taken place in recent years." Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

Primary source: The full text of the National Climate Assessment. The Washington Post.

Explainers:

Charts: 15 arresting images of climate change now and in the pipeline. Jason Samenow in The Washington Post.

More charts: 8 charts and what they mean. Brian Kahn in Climate Central.

Which cities are the most vulnerable to climate change? Abby Phillip in The Washington Post.

How is your region be affected? "Warming hasn’t been uniform with large portions of the Southwest, Upper Midwest, Northeast, and Alaska warming more than average. Depending on the path global carbon emissions take, temperatures could rise anywhere from 3-10°F by the end of the century, though the lower level is based on dramatic emissions cuts that currently seem unlikely....Understanding those different regional vulnerabilities are key to planning on how to adapt to the current and future changes we can expect." Brian Kahn in Climate Central.

How climate change hurts the economy. "Climate change is having a negative impact on people's everyday lives and damaging the U.S. economy as extreme weather brings flooding, droughts and other disasters to every region in the nation, a federal advisory committee has concluded. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment...concludes that the nation has already suffered billions of dollars in damages from severe weather-related disruptions, which it says will continue to get worse." Alicia Mundy and Colleen McCain Nelson in The Wall Street Journal.

With report's release, Obama also stepping up climate action plan. "The administration hopes to use the report to shore up public support for the president’s climate policies as he seeks to put new regulations in place to limit emissions. A major political battle over the rules is expected this summer, with Republicans already accusing Mr. Obama of plotting a 'war on coal.'...The ominous findings of the report are likely to give Mr. Obama fresh ammunition as he seeks to tackle the problem." Justin Gillis in The New York Times.

What Obama is basically telling gridlocked Congress: I don't need your permission. Clare Foran in National Journal.

Think globally, act locally: States and localities are acting when Washington isn't. Major Garrett in National Journal.

It's not just about cutting emissions. It's also about adapting. "Although nascent planning to adapt to climate change is being done at all levels of government and some businesses, the report said 'few measures have been implemented and those that have appear to be incremental changes'....The White House’s ability to spur adaptation is limited because measures depend on state and local governments, removing legal barriers, or securing funding from Congress, where many Republicans oppose climate change legislation." Barney Jopson in The Financial Times.

But Obama faces a public opinion problem on climate. "He has his work cut out for him. Perhaps more than people in any other rich nation, Americans are skeptical that climate change is a dire issue....Americans rarely cite environmental concerns when asked in polls to name the most important problem facing the country. In the last several years, the economy, jobs, the budget deficit and health care garnered the most mentions, with the environment barely registering." Megan Thee-Brenan in The New York Times.

Let's call it 'climate disruption,' White House adviser suggests. "First there was 'global warming.' Then many researchers suggested 'climate change' was a better term. Now, White House science adviser John Holdren is renewing his call for a new nomenclature to describe the end result of dumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere: 'global climate disruption.' 'I’ve always thought that the phrase ‘global warming’ was something of a misnomer because it suggests that the phenomenon is something that is uniform around the world, that it’s all about temperature, and that it’s gradual,' Holdren said....'What could be wrong with that?'" David Malakoff in Science.

Some conservatives quickly called the NCA overly pessimistic. "But some conservative groups reacted with skepticism. The libertarian Cato Institute wrote in a blog post that the report 'overly focuses on the supposed negative impacts from climate change while largely dismissing or ignoring the positives from climate change.' Specifically, Cato argued that increasing temperatures decrease people's sensitivity to heat." Brian Clark Howard in National Geographic.

What the assessment says on those positive impacts. "The report notes both positive and negative effects of climate change on, for example, the productivity of crop, livestock and fishery systems and marine navigation. 'Some of the climatic changes can be beneficial over the short run,' such as a longer growing season or longer shipping season on the Great Lakes, it explains. But the authors quickly add that most such changes are detrimental because America’s infrastructure was designed for the climate it had, not the one it has now." Alicia Mundy and Amy Harder in The Wall Street Journal.

How the NCA counters climate contrarians. "Very early on, the report states that lots of different kinds of evidence 'confirm that human activities' have driven global warming over the last 50 years....The paper tackles in plain English and swift strokes the arguments that climate contrarians generally use....The report states, for example, that satellite data show that the warming has not been caused by greater solar activity or by volcanic eruptions. A so-called pause in recent global average land temperatures 'appears to be related to cyclic changes in the oceans and in the sun’s energy output,' the report said." Neela Banerjee and Kathleen Hennessey in the Los Angeles Times.

Why Obama sat down with weathermen. "Many TV meteorologists remain climate change skeptics, in part because they are skilled at forecasting weather over short time periods, which can make them doubt long-range projections from climate science computer models. Many TV meteorologists also lack specific training in climate science. On the other hand, TV meteorologists are typically the only scientists that most Americans encounter on a daily basis, and polls show they are broadly viewed as trustworthy messengers of science content. This makes them attractive conduits for conveying climate science findings, which the White House clearly recognizes." Andrew Freedman in Mashable.

Interview: Climate change's public-health costs. NPR.

Other energy/environmental reads:

Stanford endowment votes to divest coal-mining shares. Ed Crooks in The Financial Times.

Researchers warn Okla. fracking-related quakes likely to get worse. Sean Cockerham in McClatchy Newspapers.

HUNTSMAN: GOP can't simply ignore climate change. "'TO waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.' These words were spoken by one of the nation’s most passionate conservationists: Republican President Teddy Roosevelt. I admire him for his pragmatism and individualism — foundational traits of the Republican Party. We must summon these qualities and apply them immediately and stoutly to the issue of climate change." Jon M. Huntsman Jr. in The New York Times.

KNAPPENBERGER AND MICHAELS: A bias toward pessimism. "The Obama Administration this week is set to release the latest version of the National Climate Assessment—a report which is supposed to detail the potential impacts that climate change will have on the United States. The report overly focuses on the supposed negative impacts from climate change while largely dismissing or ignoring the positives from climate change. The bias in the National Climate Assessment (NCA) towards pessimism (which we have previously detailed here) has implications throughout the federal regulatory process." Paul C. Knappenberger and Patrick J. Michaels in Cato Institute.

VINIK: What are climate change's economic costs? "Climate change would disrupt the U.S. economy in every way imaginable....Tuesday's report only hints at such impact....One must go elsewhere for greater detail on the subject—like a 2012 study conducted by the DARA Group and the Climate Vulnerable Forum that found that climate change had already lowered world GDP by 1.6 percent, or $1.2 trillion. By 2030, they estimated, the costs would rise to 3.2 percent of GDP. In 2010, Yale economist William Nordhaus calculated the cost as 2.8 percent of global output in 2095—equal to $12 trillion. " Danny Vinik in The New Republic.

MILBANK: Obama's climate contradiction. "On the eve of the Obama administration’s release Tuesday of a report warning about grave consequences of climate change, presidential counselor John Podesta went into the White House briefing room and crowed about fossil-fuel production in words that could have been penned by Dick Cheney....It was a jarring juxtaposition: a new warning Tuesday about threats to life, health and commerce posed by carbon emissions, preceded by a boast Monday about record levels of carbon-fuel production. This is the contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s climate-change policy." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

Top opinion

WEIL: There is still such a thing as 'too big to jail.' "Nobody has done more to reinforce the idea of impunity for large banks than Holder....It should be a given in the U.S. that no person or corporation is above the law. But the evidence to the contrary has been overwhelming. The Justice Department has entered into at least 20 nonprosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements with large financial institutions since 2009. Poor people who commit crimes aren't shown such leniency. Nor has the Justice Department hesitated to bring criminal charges against big companies in other industries." Jonathan Weil in Bloomberg View.

GRABOYES: Both sides are losing the health care debate. "A workable and electrifying vision is on the shelf, waiting for the real battle of ideas. The ACA mind-set has no armor against this vision. But it requires ACA opponents to play offense, rather than continue the feeble defensive game that they and their philosophical antecedents have slogged through for at least 70 years. In a word, the solution to America’s health care woes is innovation — the cost-cutting innovation we’ve seen in almost every other industry." Robert F. Graboyes in Politico Magazine.

SULLIVAN: A Piketty tax that conservatives could support. "The Zuckerberg tax would precisely target America’s superrich. So fans of the Piketty book should give it serious consideration. Of course, conservatives’ first instinct will be to shoot down this tax on sight. But I would suggest they consider the following add-on to the Zuckerberg tax that holds real promise for moving the U.S. tax system into the 21st century. In a new paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute on April 4, Eric Toder of the Urban Institute and Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute have proposed...taxing corporate shares on a market-to-market basis. But they would also entirely repeal the U.S. corporate tax." Martin Sullivan in Forbes.

McBRIDE: What's right with the housing market. "There have been quite a few hand-wringing articles lately discussing the problems with housing....Oh my, the sky is falling! Well, maybe not. The first mistake these writers make is they are asking the wrong question. Of course housing is lagging the recovery because of the residual effects of the housing bust and financial crisis (this lag was predicted on this blog and elsewhere for years - it should not be a surprise). The correct question is: What's right with housing? And there is plenty." Bill McBride in Calculated Risk.

Celebrity interlude: What every celebrity commercial ever sounds like.

2. Maybe the U.S. economy did shrink in the first quarter

New data just make first-quarter growth look even uglier. "Although the trade deficit shrank in March to $40.4 billion from $41.9 billion as exports grew, the narrowing was less than the government had projected when putting together the advance estimate on gross domestic product. Those figures, combined with previous reports on construction spending, inventories and revisions to retail sales, mean the economy probably reversed course in the first three months of the year. The bad news won’t last long, though, as many of the same analysts that are notching down first-quarter growth rates are also marking up forecasts for this quarter." Carlos Torres and Jeanna Smialek in Bloomberg.

Don't worry, growth should bounce back soon enough. "U.S. economic growth is set to rebound strongly in the second quarter as the scars of a brutally cold winter fade, but inflation pressures will remain tame through 2015, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In its latest economic outlook published on Tuesday, the OECD forecast U.S. gross domestic product expanding at a 3.9 percent annual pace this quarter, and it said it expects growth to maintain a brisk pace for the remainder of the year as well." Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

But China's slowing economy could hurt the U.S. "After watching China narrow the U.S. lead as the world's largest economy, Americans might be tempted to cheer signs that the Chinese economy might be stumbling. Any schadenfreude would be short-sighted. In an interconnected global economy, bad news for one economic superpower is typically bad news for another — even a fierce rival....Zandi estimates that each 1 percentage point drop in China's economic growth causes as much damage to the U.S. economy as a $20-a-barrel increase in oil prices: It shaves 0.2 percentage point off annual U.S. growth." Paul Wiseman and Joe McDonald in the Associated Press.

Manufacturers expect higher demand and spending this year. "Manufacturers in the U.S. are more optimistic about demand and capital spending this year than at the end of 2013, according to a survey by the Institute for Supply Management. Purchasing managers at factories project sales will grow 5.3 percent in 2014, up from the end of last year when they forecast a 4.4 percent gain, the Tempe, Arizona-based group’s figures showed today. Service industries estimate a 2.7 percent net increase in revenue compared with a December projection for a 3.6 percent gain." Shobhana Chandra in Bloomberg.

Other economic reads:

Millionaires support higher taxes on rich to tackle inequality. Walter Hamilton in the Los Angeles Times.

Banks expect credit-card lending to return to healthier growth rates. Jonathan House in The Wall Street Journal.

Fed study suggests economy has room for more stimulus. Danielle Kurtzleben in Vox.

Science interlude: Science experiments.

3. Most people are paying their Obamacare premiums

Insurers say most enrollees have paid their premiums. "As many as 90 percent of WellPoint customers have paid their first premium by its due date, according to testimony the company prepared for a congressional hearing tomorrow. For Aetna, the payment is in the 'low to mid-80 percent range,' the company said in its own testimony. Health Care Service Corp., which operates Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in five states including Texas, said that number is at least 83 percent. Making the first monthly payment is the last step to confirm enrollment in plans sold under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and Republicans have made the question of how many paid a line of attack on the law." Alex Wayne in Bloomberg.

Report: Average enrollment outpaces expectations in 22 states. Avalere Health.

Why Obamacare will never be very popular. "In just one week, a barrage of national polling has reached the same verdict: Obamacare's Rocky Balboa-esque announcement that 8 million people have signed up for health care has done absolutely nothing to reverse the law's basic and long-standing unpopularity....The stark numbers are bad news for Democrats, but they also shouldn't be surprising. Attitudes on the law have not fluctuated much since its passage in 2010 and are deeply entwined with long-held partisan loyalties, helped along by a highly political public debate.What's more, Americans' biggest complaints about the health law are pretty well etched in stone." Scott Clement and Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Slim ranks of young and healthy aren't fazing insurers. "Young adults make up 40 percent of the uninsured population, according the Kaiser Family Foundation, but even if they enroll in far smaller numbers, the health policy group estimates that the effect on premiums will be modest. If they make up 25 percent of the risk pool, that would likely push premiums up a couple of points." John Tozzi in Bloomberg Businessweek.

But some insurers warn of premium hikes if 'risk corridors' are kept budget-neutral. "Insurance industry lobbyists are warning that imposing budget neutrality on the 'risk corridors' program within President Obama's health care law could trigger rate hikes in 2015. The risk corridors program was designed to stabilize premiums in the early years of Obamacare's implementation by compensating insurers who rack up larger-than-expected losses with funds from insurers who do better than expected....Insurance industry lobbying group America's Health Insurance Plans, said the new 'budget neutrality' pledge will mean more risk for insurers, and thus, higher rates." Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner.

Chart: How the slowdown in health costs is reducing future federal health spending. "The federal government thinks it will spend $900 billion less on health care programs over the next decade than it projected just three years ago, according to a new analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget. Most of that isn't due to the federal government cutting programs or reducing what it pays doctors....The CFRB analysis of Congressional Budget Office data suggests that about 80 percent in the expected reduction in health spending is due to the fact that health care costs grew really slowly for the past four years." Sarah Kliff in Vox.

Other health care reads:

Big ambitions and flawed technologies tripped up state exchanges. Scott Hensley in NPR.

Another constitutional challenge to Obamacare. Judy Lin in the Associated Press.

How Democratic governor hopefuls will talk about Obamacare. Karyn Bruggeman in National Journal.

Another science interlude: Straight rod passes through curved hole.

4. Make or break for Keystone XL

Keystone XL is jeopardizing an energy-efficiency bill. "The U.S. Senate agreed on Tuesday to advance a bipartisan energy efficiency bill, but it could die unless lawmakers end a stalemate on how to proceed with the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline project. The Senate voted 79-20 to move toward a debate on the energy bill, making it the first big energy legislation to reach the Senate floor since 2007. Sponsored by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the White House-backed bill would save energy through tougher building codes and by making the federal government install new technologies." Reuters.

Explainer: This week could be make or break for the pipeline project. "Senators who support the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to the US Gulf coast see this week as their best shot at forcing a decision to go forward with construction. If they can pass a bill, the Republican-controlled House would likely follow suit. Then the question would be whether the president – who once again recently put off a decision on the controversial pipeline — would veto it." Francine Kiefer in The Christian Science Monitor.

Senate Democrats' divisions on the project reflect public opinion. "While Republicans and independents strongly support the pipeline (84% and 61%, respectively), Democrats find themselves divided on whether it should be built. About half (49%) of Democrats support Keystone compared to 38% who oppose it. Democratic liberals are against its construction by a 46% to 40% margin, while conservative and moderate Democrats back it by 56% to 32%. In addition, highly educated Democrats — as well as those with higher family incomes — are more likely to oppose construction of the pipeline than those with less education and lower incomes." Bruce Drake in Pew Research Center.

In terms of yes votes, close, but no cigar yet. Ramsey Cox in The Hill.

@ByronYork: Sen. Landrieu: There are '11 to 15' Democrats who will vote to build Keystone Pipeline. 15 would mean passage over Dem filibuster.

But Reid may scuttle Keystone XL vote over GOP threat of amendments. "Reid said he would not allow votes on any GOP-sponsored amendments later this week when the Senate considers the energy bill....Reid’s decision likely scuttles a vote that was expected on the Keystone XL pipeline unless Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) capitulates on his demand for votes on GOP sponsored amendments. Reid had earlier said he would allow a vote on stand-alone legislation to authorize the pipeline in exchange for an agreement from Republicans to allow an up-or-down final vote on Shaheen-Portman." Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

Quote of the day. "'You can’t always get what you want, but you try sometimes to get what you need." — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), echoing a Mick Jagger line. Humberto Sanchez and Niels Lesniewski in Roll Call.

The votes may not be there, but the legal authority is. "The report from the Congressional Research Service said that legislation to approve the Keystone project 'appears likely to be a legitimate exercise of Congress's constitutional authority to regulate foreign commerce.' The same report also noted that the executive branch's ability to act on cross-border project permits was covered under its own constitutional power to conduct foreign affairs. And there isn't much precedent for congressional challenges to executive authority in this area, the report said. Still, if Keystone proponents in Congress could muster the political force to pass legislation, it seems they would be on firm legal ground." Christina Nunez in National Geographic.

A Keystone XL loss could be political win-win for Democrats. Lisa Mascaro in the Los Angeles Times.

Animal buddies interlude: Watch this dog befriend a disabled kitten.

5. The GOP establishment does strike back, at least for now

It's a clean sweep for the establishment in first round of primaries. "North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis won the Republican Senate nomination in the Tar Heel State on Tuesday evening, comfortably surpassing the 40 percent threshold to win the nomination. His victory ratifies the aggressive strategy adopted by establishment-oriented outside groups, led by American Crossroads, to spend millions on behalf of favored candidates and attack their rivals when necessary. North Carolina was the opening battleground in the fight between the Republican Party's two main factions, and it's a sign the establishment's no-holds-barred strategy is paying off." Josh Kraushaar in National Journal.

But maybe the primaries don't tell us much about the tea party's strength. Matea Gold in The Washington Post.

Two upstarts who could win for the tea party. "Polling has been scant but what few surveys there have been have shown Midland University President Ben Sasse in Nebraska and former House Speaker T.W. Shannon (pictured) in Oklahoma as serious contenders for their party's nomination. That puts them in line to take those seats since Democrats are not expected to seriously contend in the general elections in either state. The addition of two more seats to the Ted Cruz wing of the Senate Republican conference would be a substantial gain for tea partiers." Daniel Strauss in Talking Points Memo.

Feel-good story interlude: Veteran is reunited with bomb-sniffing dog.

More political reads:

As states vote in primaries, voter ID laws come under scrutiny. Pam Fessler in NPR.

Wonkblog roundup

Stanford becomes the most prominent university yet to divest from coal. Steven Mufson.

There’s still no reason to be afraid of the inflation monster. Matt O'Brien.

Maybe we’re not headed for demographic armageddon after all. Lydia DePillis.

Is owning a house part of the "American Dream"? Depends on where you live. Christopher Ingraham.

Why homes are hitting bubble-era prices without bubble-era headaches. Dina ElBoghdady.

Expensive cancer drugs are all the rage in pharma these days. Jason Millman.

Immigration helps American workers: The definitive argument. Lydia DePillis.

Et Cetera

Food industry braces for Vt. genetically modified food labeling law. Duane D. Stanford in Bloomberg.

Lawmakers begin to explore short-term highway fund boost. Laura Litvan in Bloomberg.

Regulators step up probe into bank hiring overseas. Enda Curran and Jean Eaglesham in The Wall Street Journal.

Lawmakers struggle over Web tax. John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama administration will let spouses of some on immigrant work visas get jobs. Katie Zezima in The Washington Post.

Senate Democrats make new push on student debt. Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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