James West

James West

Climate Desk Producer

James West is senior producer for the Climate Desk and a contributing producer for Mother Jones. He wrote Beijing Blur (Penguin 2008), a far-reaching account of modernizing China’s underground youth scene. James has a masters of journalism under his belt from NYU, and has produced a variety of award-winning shows in his native Australia, including the national affairs program Hack. He's been to Kyrgyzstan, and also invited himself to Thanksgiving dinner after wrongly receiving invites for years from the mysterious Tran family.

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We Just Passed the Climate's "Grim Milestone"

| Fri May 10, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Yesterday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported today. 

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

We could find out soon enough: With the East Coast still recovering from Superstorm Sandy and the West gearing up for what promises to be a nasty fire season, University of California ecologist Max Moritz says milestones like these are "an excuse for us to take a good hard look at where we are," especially as the carbon concentration shows no signs of reversing course.

Scientists first saw the carbon scale tip past 400 ppm last summer, but only briefly; the record reported today by NOAA is the first time a daily average has surpassed that point. For the last several years concentrations have hovered in the 390s, and we're still not to the point where the carbon concentration will stay above the 400 ppm threshold permanently. But that's just around the corner, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society.

"It's clear that sometime next year we'll see 400 consistently," he said. "Avoiding the future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in greenhouse gases."

Most scientists, environmentalists, and climate-conscious policymakers agree this will require, at a minimum, slashing the use of fossil fuels, and in the meantime, taking steps to adapt for a world with higher temperatures, higher seas, and more extreme weather. For example, according to Hansen, the world will need to completely stop burning coal by 2030 if returning to 350 ppm is to remain possible. What's the holdup? Texas Tech climatologist Katherine Hayhoe blames "the inertia of our economic system, and the inertia of our political system." But she, like most of her peers, believe it can—and must—be done: "We have to change how we get our energy and how we use our energy."

How Margaret Thatcher Made the Conservative Case for Climate Action

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 2:04 PM EDT
Thatcher at the UN in 1990 United Nations

The year: 1990. The venue: Palais des Nations, Geneva. The star: Margaret Thatcher, conservative icon in the final month of her prime ministership. The topic: global warming.

Thatcher went to the Second World Climate Conference to heap praise on the then-infant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to sound, again, the alarm over global warming. Not only that, her speech laid out a simple conservative argument for taking environmental action: "It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now," she said, "than to wait and find we have to pay much more later." Global warming was, she argued, "real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."

The Iron Lady's speech makes for fascinating reading in the context of 2013's climate acrimony, drenched as it is in party politics. In the speech, she questioned the very meaning of human progress: booming industrial advances since the Age of Enlightenment could no longer be sustained in the context of environmental damage. We must, she argued, redress the imbalance with nature wrought by development.

"Remember our duty to nature before it is too late," she warned. "That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe."

On climate change, Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday aged 87, was characteristically steadfast, eloquent, and divisive. "The right always forget this part of her legacy," Lord Deben, a member of the House of Lords and Chairman of the United Kingdom's independent Committee on Climate Change, told Climate Desk on Monday. Lord Deben served in the Thatcher government and said she was crucial in raising the profile of climate negotiations around the world, even when it was deeply unpopular amongst her colleagues. "She was determined to take this high-profile position," he said. "She believed it was her duty as a scientist." (Thatcher studied science while at Oxford University). Barring a few members, "the rest of the cabinet were not convinced," he said.

Thatcher also played an instrumental role in bringing the topic to the United States, said Lord Deben. "It was fair to say she got George [H.W.] Bush to go to Rio," he said of Thatcher's high-profile entreaties to convince the then-US president to attend climate talks in 1992. "She saw it as her duty to blow the trumpet."

Margaret Thatcher at the UN
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addresses the 44th session of the General Assembly. United Nations, New York, 8 November 1989

The Geneva appearance wasn't her only speech about the need for strong international action. It was something of a theme across the latter years of her leadership. A year before, she shocked the UN General Assembly in New York by issuing a challenge: "The evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it?" The news story in the New York Times ran with the headline: "Thatcher Urges Pact On Climate." She called for the United Nations to ratify a treaty by…1992.

She also had a domestic plan. Thatcher told British parliament that her government would cut carbon emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2005. This was met by skepticism by the opposition at the time (female politicians of all eras might be familiar with one such quip from the opposition benches: "The Prime Minister may talk green—she may even dress green—but there are the same old blue policies underneath.") Lord Deben painted a picture to Climate Desk of cabinet discord over one of Thatcher's decisions to allow for funds to protect military operations from rising sea levels. "She didn't convince her Chancellor," he said.

CHART: Withering Drought Still Plaguing Half of America

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 10:00 AM EDT
Click here for a larger version. James West

The $50 billion drought that bedeviled the country last Summer—the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930's—still has its fingers around half the country. And if predictions are to be believed, it's only going to get worse for many in the coming months.

Weekly drought figures released Thursday by the US Drought Monitor, a joint project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA and several other government and academic partners, show the situation has worsened slightly from last week, with nearly 52% of the continental US now suffering from a moderate drought or worse. Below-average winter snow pack and rainfall are keeping much of the country in a holding pattern. No measurable precipitation fell on most of central and northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, central and northern Iowa, southwestern Minnesota, and the Louisiana Bayou last week. Rain that fell in the West did nothing to alleviate the drought there; in fact, parts of western Oregon and southwestern Washington have reported their driest start to a calendar year on record. The forecast for the next two weeks? Dry and dry again.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate prediction center warns today that drought is likely to persist for much of the West and expand across northern California and southern Oregon. Although the numbers are more optimistic across eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, with some rain on the way, drought still has a strong grip on much of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona due to low snow-water (around 75% of normal) heading into spring and early summer. That is just the latest in a battery of warning signs that show another brutal summer on its way: California experienced its driest January-February period on record, and average winter temperatures across the contiguous US were 1.9°F above the 20th century average.

These figures come on the back of the spring outlook from NOAA released two weeks ago that point to hotter, drier conditions coming up across much of the US, and with that, flooding.

In many parts of the country, drought in fact never loosened its grip, imperiling the winter wheat crop that sustains much of the US wheat industry.

 

How Much Is a Beachfront Home in the Sandy-Ravaged Rockaways Worth?

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 1:05 PM EDT

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It's otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

"There are more opportunities because of everything that's happened in the last six months," Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there's a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce—sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.

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