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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Brrrr: Incredible Photos of the Polar Vortex

| Tue Jan. 7, 2014 3:51 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.

NOAA/NASA GOES Project

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!

@TeriMatthewson/Twitter

"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:

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3 Countries That Are Bailing on Climate Action

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 3:11 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.

"Bodies are lined up in the streets"

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 1:44 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."

Carbon-Sucking Golf Balls and Other Crazy Climate Patents

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 7:00 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.

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