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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Chart: The Black Triangle Suffocating Beijing

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Beijing Coal Map

In 2008, Beijing pulled off what some (myself included) considered a miracle: banishing choking smog to reveal an Olympic city bathing in blue. They reportedly took a million of the city's 3.3 million cars off the road, and closed down factories and construction sites.

But try as they might, in the years since the Olympics, city officials have rarely replicated that success, despite replacing the city's coal-fired power stations with natural gas, capping its annual coal consumption at 20 million tons by 2015, forcing heavy trucking to go nocturnal, and limiting car exhaust and construction dust.

The recent crisis that featured "beyond index" rates of pollutants and a thick, blanket of smog that choked the city for days, proves why Beijing just can't do it alone. China's enormous boom in cars often gets blamed, but in fact the bigger problem lies farther afield.

The chart above shows that without controlling emissions across the country—especially from neighboring coal-producing provinces like Hebei and Shanxi—prevailing winds will keep blowing toxic smog Beijing's way. Climate Desk has compiled data from NOAA, Greenpeace, and CARMA to show 38 power plants that lie in the path of the winds that brought smog to Beijing during its pollution crisis from January 10-12.

The pollution is bad news for people's health: A recent study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University’s School of Public Health estimated that 8,572 premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 because of the smog.

A note about the data: CARMA produces a detailed list of carbon-emitting power plants around the world—but for China, it can be tricky to get their precise locations and emissions because there is no public disclosure database provided by the government. The area displayed on the map is a rough approximation.

Chart: What Exactly (Cough) Is Beijing (Hack) Breathing?

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 7:01 AM EST

China's landlocked capital of 20 million people has experienced record-breaking pollution over the last few days. The South China Morning Post reported that visits to Beijing Children's Hospital hit a five-year high, with more than 7,000 patients a day. Bloomberg News found that heart attacks roughly doubled since Friday at Peking University People's Hospital. (H/t Shanghaiist).

Kids were forced to stay home from school as Beijing authorities enacted unprecedented measures to combat the thick, nostril-burning layer of grossness. They even banned the use of certain government vehicles. The "fog," as it is euphemistically known in China, is set to continue for a number of days and has prompted an unusual display of openness from the country's state-controlled press, calling for urgent action.

Climate Desk breaks down exactly what's in the air.

Beijing Air

Australia's Climate Inferno "Encroaching on Entirely New Territory"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 4:38 PM EST
Cooma Fire
Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 New South Wales Rural Fire Service

Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heatwave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," Professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway—this is not just within the normal variation of things."

Flannery is perhaps best known in the US for his 2005 book, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; Downunder, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).

Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."

That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2°F (39°C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures have outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a ratio 3-to-1 over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meterology.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery Mark Coulson, 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.

Several fires are still burning in Tasmania, Australia's lush island state, where the crisis began last week. The cost of the destruction of 200 buildings there is pegged at $A50 million ($US52.7m), according to the Australian newspaper. Luckily—perhaps shockingly given the extent of damage—lives were spared.

Statewide total fire bans remain in force across the weekend in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), where at last count more than 95 fires are still burning, with 18 out of control. NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that new fires on Saturday might be "beyond the ability for fire services to suppress."

And don't think there's any rest from wild weather. Not content which just record-breaking heat, the skies are now hurling Narelle—a category 4 severe tropical storm comparable to a strong Category 3 hurricane—at the North West of the vast continent. Communities living along a coastline roughly as long as the stretch from New York to North Carolina are bracing for gale force winds and heavy rains.

Cyclone Narelle
Tropical Cyclone Narelle off the West Australian coast Australian Bureau of Meterology

"There is no doubt," Flannery said, "that climate change is playing a significant roll in this. If this was just one record-breaking event you might write it off as a statistical anomaly. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing records falling around the world."

Flannery told Climate Desk the Australian government has confirmed he will hold his seat for the next two years, but it might not play out that way. The conservative opposition party is likely to erode the Climate Commission if elected, something that will be decided by a deepy divided electorate towards the end of this year. The election promises to be fought over the government's carbon tax. Opposition leader Tony Abbott famously made a "blood pledge" to repeal the tax which will lead to a carbon trading scheme.

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