James West

James West

Senior Producer, Mother Jones/Climate Desk

James West is senior producer for Mother Jones and its reporting project Climate Desk. 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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Check Out This Shocking Map of California's Drought

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 3:44 PM EST

While the country's appetite for extreme weather news was filled (to the brim) this week by the polar vortex, spare a thought for sunny California, where exceptionally dry weather is provoking fears of a long, tough summer ahead.

The state is facing what could be its worst drought in four decades. The chart above, released by the National Drought Mitigation Center on Monday, shows just how dry the soil is compared to the historical average: the lighter the color, the more "normal" the current wetness of the soil; the darker the color, the rarer. You can see large swathes of California are bone dry.

Nearly 90 percent of the state is suffering from severe or extreme drought. A statewide survey shows the current snowpack hovering below 20 percent of the average for this time of year. The AP is reporting that if the current trend holds, state water managers will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water needed for more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland.

A study published in Nature Climate Change at the end of last year found that droughts will probably set in more quickly and become more intense as climate change takes hold.

Brrrr: Incredible Photos of the Polar Vortex

| Tue Jan. 7, 2014 2:51 PM EST

UPDATE 4:35pm EST: Scott Harrison gave us the nod to publish his terrific photo of throwing boiling water into minus 14 degree air in the early hours of Monday morning, in Wicker Park, Chicago. If you have polar vortex photos you want to share with us, send us a note on Twitter: @MotherJones.

The polar vortex sweeping across the country has pulled 187 million Americans into the grips of crazy cold weather, snarled travel, forced an early orange harvest, and heated up the climate debate. It is also producing some amazing photography, from professionals and amateurs alike. Here are a few that have come to our attention in the last two days.

Hank Cain, via Shawn Reynolds/Twitter.

This picture was taken by pilot Hank Cain, over a frozen Chicago, and first tweeted by his friend Shawn Reynolds from the Weather Channel. Chicago reported a low of minus 16 degrees on Monday.

Nancy Stone/MCT/ZUMA

Teresa Wooldridge has her work cut out for her, pictured here trying to clear a path on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

@ChicagosMayor, The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The office of the Chicago Mayor tweeted this image of steaming rooftops yesterday morning. Four people reportedly died while shoveling snow in the city across the weekend.


NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center tweeted this picture showing the extent of the weather event—"a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure"—over the US. The image was captured by satellite Monday morning.

Ernest Coleman/ZUMA

Warmer temperatures in the Ohio River than the surrounding air created this eerie mist outside downtown Cincinnati on Monday. According to the National Weather Service, the city tied its record-low temperature for that date, at minus 7, set in 1924. Desperate times call for desperate measures: maintenance crews are treating roads with beet juice, apparently, because it can help melt ice at temperatures as low as minus 25; it's also said to be better for the environment than regular deicers. Factoid of the day!


"I'd rather have my frozen berries in my smoothie, then on my front lawn," is the caption to this photo taken by Teri Matthewson, from Toronto, of the fruit tree in her front lawn. In Canada, the vortex has earned the nickname "polar pig" in some quarters, for its shape on the metrological map.

And the Chicago Tribune is reporting that 500 passengers were stranded on two trains last night west of the city because of the snow and ice.

Separately, Van Jones, co-host of CNN's Crossfire, this morning tweeted this pic of what he says is inside an Amtrak train:

3 Countries That Are Bailing on Climate Action

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 2:11 PM EST
James West/Climate Desk

When Japan dramatically slashed its plans last week for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, from 25 percent to just 3.8 percent compared to 2005 figures, the international reaction was swift and damning.

Britain called it "deeply disappointing." China's climate negotiator, Su Wei, said, "I have no way of describing my dismay." The Alliance of Small Island Nations, which represents islands most at risk of sea level rise, branded the move "a huge step backwards."

The decision was based on the fact that Japan's 50 nuclear reactors—which had provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity—are currently shuttered for safety checks after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, despite the government trying to bring some of them back online. That nuclear energy is largely being replaced by fossil fuels.

Japan's announcement has cast a shadow on this week's climate negotiations in Warsaw. Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics and a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, described the mood as "a downward spiral of ambition" which is "undermining confidence in the process and the ability to move forward."

Elliot Diringer, the executive vice president of the DC-based think tank Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says NGOs and policymakers are feeling frustrated: "There was a great deal of sympathy for Japan in the aftermath of Fukushima," he says. "And that's now converted to disappointment."

But Japan isn't the only industrialized country at Warsaw walking away from previously stated climate goals and attracting criticism for throwing a spanner in the works, an issue also explored here in Grist. Australia and Canada are emerging as strong opponents of more aggressive climate action and are likely to come up short on their commitments to reduce their emissions.

Australia Guts Carbon Policy

Sweeping to power on a carbon tax backlash in September this year, Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has wasted no time in shifting the country's policy course—and rhetoric—on climate action.

The conservative government is dismantling the country's market-based carbon pricing laws in the parliament as a matter of first priority, and replacing it with its own system, "Direct Action," a $3 billion plan to fund projects that it says will help lower emissions. The problem is not many people believe it will work. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker, which assesses reduction programs around the world, shows that rather than cutting greenhouse gases by the promised 5 percent, the policy will actually increase emissions by 2020 by 12 percent compared to 2000 levels. Independent modeling shows that even if the government stuck to its 5 percent pledge, it couldn't be met without coughing up an additional $3.7 billion.

Australia's new policies are "registering shock," in Warsaw, says Hare, who also helps run Climate Action Tracker. "It's being met with disbelief."

At the Warsaw talks, Australia is contributing "to a sense that there's some unfortunate backsliding among some countries," Direnger says.

Abbott asserted last week that the goal will be met, but he added that no further money would be spent on the program if it wasn't: "We will achieve it with the Direct Action policy as we've announced it and that policy: It's costed, it's funded, and it's capped," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Australian Conservation Foundation accused the government of abandoning its promise to scale its original pledge up to 25 percent if there's stronger global climate action, calling Abbott a "deal wrecker." The opposition Labor party said the government was allowing "big polluters open slather in the future."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott attends the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sir Lanka. Li Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA

A flurry of other developments Downunder have helped to cement the new government's stance at home and abroad:

  • There are plans to kill three key organs of the previous government's climate policy entirely: the independent Climate Commission, the Climate Change Authority, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
  • The budget for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency will be slashed by $435 million over the next three years
  • For the first time since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, Australia declined to send its environment minister, Greg Hunt, to this week's international climate talks talks, saying the business of repealing the carbon legislation in the first two weeks of parliament was too important.

Canada Unlikely to Meet Its Own Targets

Australia is among the developed world's worst polluters in terms of of CO2 per capita. But Canada is not far behind its Commonwealth compatriot. Lately, they seem to be enjoying each other's company.

This week, both conservative governments opposed a push at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to establish a green capital fund for small island states and poor African countries to address climate change. Canada recently praised Australia's decision to repeal its carbon tax: "The Australian prime minister's decision will be noticed around the world and sends an important message." 

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. James Park/Xinhua/ZUMA

When Canada signed the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, the country committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (bringing it in line with US goals). But last month, the Harper government admitted it's going to blow past that target by a wide margin. Environment Canada, the federal ministry that looks after climate policy, issued a report that said that without new government action, the country's emissions will be 20 percent (or 122 megatons) higher than the country committed to at Copenhagen. This amount is barely below 2005 figures.

It's this trajectory that, in part, led the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch to list Canada as the worst performing country among all industrialized nations in their annual performance index—unchanged from last year's ranking: "Canada still shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer," the report states. (In December 2011, Canada was the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol).

Reading the tea leaves doesn't inspire much optimism: All of this is happening against the background of expanding tar sands development. The report from Environment Canada predicts that without a change in policy, CO2-equivalent emissions from oil sands are projected to increase by nearly 200 percent by 2020 over 2005 levels. And on tar sands, the Harper government shows no sign shifting policy direction.

The combined effect has an "ultimately corrosive effect on the ability to secure a strong international agreement if the major players aren't playing," Hare says.

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