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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"Bodies are lined up in the streets"

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 12:44 AM EST
Marines carry an injured Filipino woman on a stretcher for medical attention, assisted by a Philippine Air Force airman at Vilamore Air Base, Manila. Caleb Hoover/U.S. Marines/ZUMA

A difficult recovery effort, hampered by security threats, bottlenecks, and an almost complete lack of communications, is still in its infancy in the Philippines four days after a powerful typhoon plowed through the country.

Super Typhoon Haiyan—also known locally as Yolanda—made landfall several times on Friday, leaving in its wake up to 10,000 casualties (a figure that comes from local officials on the island of Leyte and reported by the Associated Press; the official Philippine government count is much lower). The Joint Typhoon Warning Center data reported sustained winds approached 195 miles per hour three hours before landfall, with gusts of up to 235 miles per hour. Stunningly scary footage captured by a CCTV/Weather Channel team during Haiyan's height shows damaging storm surges ripping buildings apart, "like a tsunami." The storm made landfall again in Vietnam on Monday morning local time.

The Philippines, a group of more than 7,100 islands, is no a stranger to tropical cyclones (this is the 24th just this year). And just as more than 9.5 million people who were in the storm's path survey the damage and locate loved ones, the country is facing another tropical depression, Zoraida​.

"We are always between two typhoons. The farther we are from the previous one, the nearer we are to the next one."

"We are always between two typhoons. The farther we are from the previous one, the nearer we are to the next one," said Amalie Obusan, a Greenpeace climate campaigner in the Philippines, by phone. "Now it seems like a very cruel joke…Every year, every super typhoon is much stronger than the previous year."

Lynette Lim from Save the Children, an aid and development agency focused on the youngest disaster victims, survived the storm in the provincial capital Tacloban, perhaps the hardest hit city. She said the severity of Haiyan took everyone by surprise, scrambling preparation efforts, and setting the recovery back. "Most of the government officials were completely incapacitated to respond to the needs of children and their families." Even now, four days later, Lim said, "We're really starting from scratch."

Lim estimates that two out of every five dead bodies she saw were children. Reached by phone in Manila, where she had returned to help coordinate her organization's response with the benefit of cellphone reception, Lim said she saw "widespread" evidence of malnutrition amongst children already hungry just days after the storm: "It's just quite a heartbreaking sight. Going without food for this many days could be fatal for them." 

One of the most pressing concerns facing the recovery effort, said Lim, is installing proper management of camps for survivors. In Tacloban's main sports arena, known as the Astrodome, which she said was housing an estimated 15,000 people, "the conditions are terrible because people are throwing their trash everywhere, and children are openly defecating because there are no portable toilets."

But relief resources cannot start flowing reliably until basics are met, and that's going to take time: "Clearing the roads, there is no power, there is no water," she said. "It's really tough conditions for aid workers as well as for the survivors."

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Carbon-Sucking Golf Balls and Other Crazy Climate Patents

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Forget YouTube as your go-to 3:00 p.m. internet distraction. For me, it's the US patent office website. There is some seriously wild stuff being invented by your fellow citizens, not least in the area of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Here are a few of my favorite climate-related patents issued recently by the office. (I've added a little color to the design sketches):

Golf courses are hardly known for being paragons of environmentally friendly land use. They use a massive amount of water and have been found to be net carbon emitters, mainly due to land-clearing. But—phew!—there could soon be a way to shuck that green guilt and keep on swinging.

These carbon dioxide-absorbing golf balls, invented by the golf team at Nike, are intended to "reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to aid in alleviating global warming," by enabling the "golf ball itself to play a role in the fight against global warming." (You can't make this stuff up). Additionally, the Nike inventors claim this is the first time a golf ball itself has attempted to off-set carbon consumed during its manufacture.

Here's how it works: When you hit the ball, little bits of its surface layer deform and set off a chemical chain reaction that absorbs carbon dioxide as the ball flies through the air. The more times you swing, the greater the surface area exposed to the internal reactions. So, if you're anything like me, and you need to hit the ball an embarrassing number of times, comfort yourself with the knowledge you're doing more to save the world more than your pro golf buddies (except all my balls end up in the water). At the end of the game, according to the patent, you'll be able to see how much carbon you've sequestered using a visual indicator on the side of the ball. 

Golfing sure beats hammering out a broad international agreement to reduce carbon. But sorry to spike your high: The inventors admit the golf ball could "at best be only carbon neutral, and is not capable of reducing the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." Damn. Really? (After several attempts to organize an interview with the Portland-based inventor Chia-Chyi Cheng, Nike told me the company doesn't talk to the media about their numerous inventions or patents).

Verdict: Cool science! But don't expect President Obama to start arguing his golf days are saving the planet.


We learned last month that average summer temperatures in parts of the Arctic during the past 100 years are hotter than they have been for possibly as long as 120,000 years. And the Arctic recently registered the sixth lowest summer sea ice minimum on record.

Why don’t we just replace all that melting ice?

That's the idea behind this recently published patent for artificial ice. According to the filing, an "ice" substrate would be dropped onto the surface of an ocean or a lake and left there to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere using a 3-corner retro reflector surface (the same technology used by street signs). Meanwhile, nutrients sown on the underside would encourage algae to grow for biofuel production. Algae is a proven energy source. In February 2012, President Obama announced the Department of Energy would allocate $14 million in new funding to develop transportation fuels from algae.

"It seemed like a two-fer to me," says inventor and engineer Phillip Langhorst from St. Louis, Missouri. "In order to solve global warming we're going to have to do something on an insanely huge scale. And this is the only thing I've seen that's big enough." 

A few weeks after putting the ice on the water, a ship would come along, scrape the algae off and reapply the necessary nutrients.

"I need help, obviously, to see if this is a viable scheme," he says, although he admits most companies he approaches balk at the idea. But he argues that facing the realities and costs of big geo-engineering projects like this is becoming increasingly necessary, in lieu of putting a price on carbon: "Pick your poison, you know," he says. "My goal is not so much to patent this and make a billion dollars off of it; it's to solve the global warming issue so we all don't have to move to Saskatchewan​."

Verdict: Please, can't we stop the real ice from melting?


Imagine this scenario in the not-too-distant future: Your car has iced over in one of the many more extreme storms of a climate-changed world. It takes too long—and too much gas—to de-ice the car. Moreover, the engines in energy-efficient and electric cars mean there is less "waste heat" in the system that's available for the purpose of traditional defrosting techniques.

A new defrosting system may just become the must-have for winter drivers, according to this patent for a "windshield washer fluid heater and system," which attempts to defrost within seconds, not minutes. It may even, according to the language of the patent, reduce "energy dependence on foreign oil." That actually isn't too lofty a claim when you look at the auto industry roaring back to life. Since 2009, car production has nearly doubled; in July, US car and light-truck sales ran at an annualized pace of 15.8 million, up more than a million from the previous year. Any fuel savings count.

The invention passes engine heat that already exists through a new heat exchanger. Upon flicking the washer/wiper switch, washer fluid heats in a special new heater in a matter of seconds, and finally sprays out nozzles integrated into the wiper blades of the car, delivering a "continuous on-demand heated fluid deicing and cleaning action to the windshield and wiper blades." 

"This is so much more effective in clearing the windshield, because a traditional system needs to warm up 30-40 pounds of windshield glass before it can get to the outside ice," which requires a lot of energy, says Jere Lansinger, a 74-year-old retired automotive engineer and inventor. A 40-year veteran of the industry in Detroit, Lansinger used to test defrosting systems to ensure they met the federal standard for safe driving: around 30 minutes for a clear windshield. "And 30 minutes is a terribly long time when you want to get moving in the morning." So for the last 20 years he's been tinkering on this invention in his garage. Now the defrost time is under a minute, he says.

Lansinger has commercial interest already. The invention has been bought by TSM Corporation, Michigan, and is being developed as a product called QuikTherm, which the company says is currently being tested at several North American automotive parts manufacturers. And that's enormously gratifying for Lansinger. "Frankly it makes me feel better than any big royalties I'll get."

Verdict: ​A neat fuel-efficiency measure I've never thought about. And nothing's worse than de-icing your car.


This might be my favorite for its simplicity: A portable power station that can be off-loaded from a trailer, unfolded, put up anywhere there's sun or wind, and switched on. In the picture here, it's being used to charge a car. But it can power anything it likes.

"I was tickled to death," says Lynn Miller, the inventor from Crossville, Tennessee, about the day he was granted the patent, which he's been working on for over three years. He's now spent over $20,000 on the idea and is looking forward to getting a prototype up and running in the new year.

For Miller, it's all about simplicity and reducing costs for the consumer. "We'd bring it out in the morning, and in the afternoon it's working. It's a plug-and play-system," he says. He also likes the idea that having one of these in the company parking lot, or by the side of the road, gives ultimate green bragging rights: "It's very visible, it reminds people day-in, day-out that you're environmental."

Miller's plan is to also set up the portable power stations at schools and colleges to demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy. "It's not just book knowledge, this can be turned into a classroom."

Verdict: I want one.

My Shocking Train Ride Through the Heart of China’s “Airpocalypse”

| Fri Sep. 27, 2013 11:09 AM EDT
Power plant stacks tower over a town in China's coal country. James West, Climate Desk

People write about China's growth so much it's daunting to wring out something new. But—wow—when you see it for the first time in a few years, it still delivers one hell of a punch.

I lived in China for a year before Beijing's 2008 Olympics (a kind of development event horizon in China’s history, towards which the whole country hurtled), and I've been back regularly enough to marvel at changes first hand.

But I have never before been as dumbfounded as during a train ride this week from Beijing through a swathe of China's northeast coal belt. My colleague Jaeah Lee and I were whisked away from the capital on rails that carry sleek new bullet trains (in just two years, China will have completed 18,000 kilometers (11,200 miles) of high-speed railway lines, leaving the US limping). We zoom at 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour through unabated upheaval.

The scene could be a panel from a graphic novel. For hours, not a single bird stirred around the hundreds of empty skyscrapers that hang lifeless over farms; they will house the newly urbanized from China's rural areas. Every bit of the shadowy landscape in China's northeast has been pressed into the service of an all-pervasive industry: power generation. China continues to be the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the World Resources Institute. It's clear to me now: Where one coal power plant stops, another begins. A thick brown air blows and for a moment the trees look like nature's very own protestors, shaking their fists at the sky (the human variety are strictly banned—though public outrage finally forced the government to publish air quality data in 2012). 

"I feel weak and powerless," a young filmmaker surnamed Yang told me later in a Xi'an cafe when I asked him about climate change and pollution. "I've seen so many pioneering and brave people dare to stand up, only to be punished."

This year's tipping-point event for the public debate, dubbed by expats as "airpocalypse," covered 2.7 million square kilometers of the country with a pall of smog and impacted more than 600 million people. We pass through Zhengzhou, ranked among the four worst cities in China for air pollution; the city consistently registers levels well over China's official scale for what's called PM2.5—dangerous tiny particles from coal-burning and industry. In the first half of this year, China's levels of these particles were three-times worse than levels advised by the World Health Organization. It's this kind of air pollution that contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, researchers say. My Beijing friends will call me a wimp, but I've developed a persistent cough these last few days. It's hard to breathe.

"I think the air quality is awful all around the country," a Chinese man surnamed Liang tells me (like the filmmaker, he didn't want to give his full name). "For average citizens, there are not many things we can do about it...We are not yet a democracy. Average people can only try to live their own lives."

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released Friday, greenhouse gas levels are now higher than at any point in "at least the last 800,000" years. With a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions now coming from China, the world's most populous country will have an outsized influence on the future of climate change. That didn't go unnoticed at the IPCC release in Stockholm, Friday. "If China can mind its business well, it will be a great contribution to the world," said report co-chair Dahe Qin, speaking in Chinese in response to a question from a Chinese reporter, according to a translator.

There are some encouraging signs of change. The new government under Xi Jinping is finally taking seriously the threat of coal to China's air: It's simply untenable for any government, let alone one that depends so fundamentally on suppressing unrest, to ignore. This month, Beijing committed to progressively shut down its coal plants inside the city within four years, according to official plans that also reduce burning in China's coal-producing provinces. Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have agreed to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in refrigerants, in a move that could lead to a strengthening of the Montreal Protocol as an international climate agreement. And China has sunk millions into solar development, as you can see in the graph below, outpacing the US dollar-for-dollar in renewable energy investment, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China's National Development and Reform Commission—which looks after big-picture planning—announced earlier this year that  renewable energy investments in the country could total $294 billion in the five years ending in 2015. This includes the incredible growth of 22 percent from 2011 to 2012. A closer look at the data shows the US has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to compete with the world's biggest clean energy player.

James West, Climate Desk

But it's hard to have confidence staring out the window of this railroad car. The difference between inside our modern train and the turbulent outside world couldn't be greater. Inside is quiet, air-conditioned and pleasurably fast. Outside, the environmental crisis continues to unfold before our eyes. It's a sense of powerlessness shared by Chinese people we speak to.

"Under an ironfisted and strong government, what we normal people can do to change the country is very limited," said Yang, the filmmaker. "That's why I feel sad and disappointed."





Explained in 90 Seconds: Your Fridge Is Accelerating Climate Change—But It Doesn't Have To

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

The outward statecraft of the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was dominated by disagreements over Syria. But behind the scenes, leaders were busy agreeing on something they rarely find common ground on: climate change. Thirty-five nations and the European Union decided to curb hydrofluorocarbons, a set of powerful heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning, heat pumps, and insulation. This follows a deal earlier this year between China and the United States, in which President Obama and President Xi agreed to limit these greenhouse gases.

​So, what are HFCs and why are they important to climate change?

Yes, carbon dioxide is the big culprit when it comes to climate change. HFCs represent only a small fraction of total greenhouse gasesand they are short-lived compared to CO2but they pack a real punch in terms of what scientists call "global warming potential," which they rate as many hundred times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide.

Bucking the general international trend in climate talks, there's actually a history of agreement about limiting these types of gases. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, the world came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, phasing out the use of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons; that treaty is now universally ratified, and the ozone layer is recovering. Their industrial replacements were HFCs, and while these gases didn't attack the ozone layer—Earth's precious protective shield—they still trap a lot of heat, adding to global warming. Scientists say that if HFCs aren't curbed in the same way as their CFC cousins, this whole family of gasescalled halocarbonscould accelerate the next century’s expected warming by about 20 years.

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