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.

Get my RSS |

5 Terrifying Facts From the Leaked UN Climate Report

| Thu Aug. 28, 2014 1:08 PM EDT
A massive "ice island" breaks free from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2012.

How many synonyms for "grim" can I pack into one article? I had to consult the thesaurus: ghastly, horrid, awful, shocking, grisly, gruesome.

This week, a big report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked before publication, and it confirmed, yet again, the grim—dire, frightful—reality the we face if we don't slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.

This "Synthesis Report," to be released in November following a UN conference in Copenhagen, is still subject to revision. It is intended to summarize three previous UN climate publications and to "provide an integrated view" to the world's governments of the risks they face from runaway carbon pollution, along with possible policy solutions.

As expected, the document contains a lot of what had already been reported after the three underpinning reports were released at global summits over the past year. It's a long list of problems: sea level rise resulting in coastal flooding, crippling heat waves and multidecade droughts, torrential downpours, widespread food shortages, species extinction, pest outbreaks, economic damage, and exacerbated civil conflicts and poverty.

But in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of "irreversible" ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.

Here are five particularly grim—depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant—takeaways from the report.

1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.
The report says that anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase from 1970 to 2010, at a pace that ramped up especially quickly between 2000 and 2010. That's despite some regional action that has sought to limit emissions, including carbon-pricing schemes in Europe. We haven't done enough, the United Nations says, and we're already seeing the effects of inaction. "Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history," the report says. "The climate changes that have already occurred have had widespread and consequential impacts on human and natural systems."

2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) is going to be very hard.
To keep warming below this limit, our emissions need to be slashed dramatically. But at current rates, we'll pump enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to sail past that critical level within the next 20 to 30 years, according to the report. We need to emit half as much greenhouse gas for the remainder of this century as we've already emitted over the past 250 years. Put simply, that's going to be difficult—especially when you consider the fact that global emissions are growing, not declining, every year. The report says that to keep temperature increases to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, deep emissions cuts of between 40 and 70 percent are needed between 2010 and 2050, with emissions "falling towards zero or below" by 2100.

3. We'll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.
The report says that in every warming scenario it the scientists considered, we should expect to see year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice. By 2050, that will likely result in strings of years in which there is the near absence of sea ice in the summer, following a well-established trend. And then there's Greenland, where glaciers have been retreating since the 1960s—increasingly so after 1993—because of man-made global warming. The report says we may already be facing a situation in which Greenland's ice sheet will vanish over the next millennium, contributing up to 23 feet of sea level rise.

4. Dangerous sea level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world's coastlines by the end of the century.
The report finds that by 2100, the devastating effects of sea level rise—including flooding, infrastructure damage, and coastal erosion—will impact the vast majority of the world's coastlines. That's not good: Half the world's population lives within 37 miles of the sea, and three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast, according to the United Nations. The sea has already risen significantly: From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.62 feet.

5. Even if we act now, there's a real risk of "abrupt and irreversible" changes.
The carbon released by burning fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere and the seas for centuries to come, the report says, even if we completely stop emitting CO2 as soon as possible. That means it's virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100. Without strategies to reduce emissions, the world will see 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above preindustrial temperatures by the end of the century, condemning us to "substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, [and] consequential constraints on common human activities."

What's more, the report indicates that without action, the effects of climate change could be irreversible: "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

Grim, indeed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Video: "Holy Shit!" Freak Weather Event Stuns Brooklyn's Hipster Beach

| Sun Aug. 10, 2014 4:12 PM EDT

The weekend peace and quiet of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York—sometimes dubbed the "hipster beach" by locals—was shattered on Sunday afternoon​ by a strange, towering meteorological visitor. And also by the howls of my friend Michael Gambale, who took this video, yelling like the world was fast coming to an end. "It was amazing," he said. "I had my 'oh shit, a double rainbow' moment."​

The spiraling, orange tunnel-like phenomenon appears to be a textbook specimen of a "dust devil", which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration​ definition, is a "small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt or debris it picks up." It's not a tornado, which is much more powerful and connected to a cloud, and certainly not as dangerous (though in 1992, an Alburquerque dust devil produced 70 mph winds, equivalent to a typical severe thunderstorm.) Instead, according to NASA, "a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right." And they were.

According to Gambale, who was relaxing in the park with friends, it lasted about a minute, leaving some locals "perplexed", and others filled with a sense of adventure: "Some dude ran into it, that's why I said don't run into it," Gambale added. "And he did! He just got all dusty. It wasn't that strong obviously."

But don't diss the dust devil by calling it weak or short-lived: "It's a dirtbag hipster tornado and it's Brooklyn's."

The only other reference I could find to "twister" in McCarren park was of a very different kind: Mass "Twister" performed by a marauding group of Santas for 2009's Santacon. I like this one much better.

See? Everything exciting happens in Brooklyn.

Fly Through Pyongyang With This Gorgeous Timelapse Video

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 4:35 PM EDT

Enter Pyongyang from JT Singh on Vimeo.

Timelapse videos of mega-cities like New York have become something of a viral video cliché in recent years. (If you're anything like me, you lap them up without shame, all the same). But I bet you've never seen the capital of the world's most reclusive nation, North Korea, quite like this before. The filmmakers—JT Singh and Rob Whitworth—spent six days in Pyongyang filming this video that delivers you right into the very-human nitty gritty of a place that looks far less creepy than those "Mass Games" videos would lead you to believe.

Even so, how much can we rely on this portrait for an accurate take on North Korea as a whole? Not a lot: the capital is home to the ruling elite, and used by the regime as a showcase city; people here are hardly representative. For example, 16 million of North Korea's 24 million people suffer from critical food insecurity, relying only on state-rationed food, according to the UN; one out of every three children is too short for his or her age. Hunger, poverty, lack of electricity, brutal repression and political reprisals... you name it: A UN special inquiry recently described North Korea's human rights violations as without "parallel in the contemporary world."

It's also true that the video is effectively an advertisement for a company operating out of Beijing called Koryo Tours, which has run tours into North Korea since 1993; the group covered the filmmakers' travel expenses. (Full disclosure: I'm pals with Vicky Mohieddeen, who accompanied the film crew, and works for Koryo).

But I think it adds vital perspective to a place shut away from the world by its repressive government. It's oh-so-interesting taking a look inside.

Fri May. 9, 2014 6:07 PM EDT
Tue Jan. 7, 2014 2:51 PM EST
Tue Nov. 19, 2013 2:11 PM EST
Tue Nov. 12, 2013 12:44 AM EST
Tue Jun. 25, 2013 10:56 AM EDT
Fri Jun. 21, 2013 2:47 PM EDT
Fri Jun. 7, 2013 5:56 AM EDT
Fri May. 10, 2013 5:01 PM EDT