Blue Marble - December 2009

Copenhagen: Obama Guts Progressive Values

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 6:50 PM EST

The President of the United States did several things in his agreement today with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa:

  • He blew up the United Nations. The idea that theres a world community that means something has disappeared tonight. The clear point is, you poor nations can spout off all you want on questions like human rights or the role of women or fighting polio or handling refugees, but when you get too close to the things that count —the fossil fuel that's at the center of our economy— you can forget about it. We're not interested. You're a bother, and when you sink beneath the waves we don't want to hear much about it. The dearest hope of the American right for fifty years was essentially realized because in the end coal is at the center of America's economy. We'd already done this with war and peace, and now we've done it with global warming. What exactly is the point of the UN now?

  • He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super polluters. China, the US, and India dont want anyone controlling their use of coal in any meaningful way. It is a coalition of foxes who will together govern the henhouse. It is no accident that the targets are weak to nonexistent. We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves with targets, he said. Indeed. And now imagine what this agreement will look like with the next Republican president.

  • He demonstrated the kind of firmness and resolve that Americans like to see. It will play well politically at home and that will be the worst part of the deal. Having spurned Europe and the poor countries of the world, he will reap domestic political benefit. George Bush couldn't have done this because the reaction would have been too great. Obama has taken the mandate that progressives worked their hearts out to give him, and used it to gut the ideas that progressives have held most dear. The ice caps won't be the only things we lose with this deal.

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Breaking: Obama Announcing Deal

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 5:10 PM EST

Update: Obama is speaking. Here's the live audio feed.

We're hearing that some kind of deal has been reached at Copenhagen and that Obama is due to speak to reporters at 4.30pm EST. We'll have details for you if/when that happens, but in the meantime you can follow the proceedings in the Bella Center minute-by-minute on Twitter by following Mother Jones' @DavidCornDC and @kate_sheppard.

GOP Reps Regale Copenhagen with Scientific Knowledge

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 3:03 PM EST

Six Republican members of Congress brought their questionable grasp of climate science to Copenhagen on Friday, hoping to capitalize on the fact that a final deal is still up in the air. Their mission, they said, was to inform the folks at the summit that the US doesn't plan to finalize a cap-and-trade plan anytime soon. But they spent most of their presser spouting off dubious, if amusing, views on climate science.

Take, for instance, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who announced that "the premise that mankind through the emissions of CO2, is causing the planet to warm...has never been independently analyzed or tested by any scientific group." Known for his unusual and unorthodox scientific views, Barton spoke at length on the matter. "I respect the Texas climatologists," he said. "But it's hot in Texas in the summer and it's cold in Texas in the winter. And I can't tell if that's going to change much one way or another. We don't have an ice cap in Texas, so before we make a policy decision I think it's a fair question to try to develop a theory that appears to more fit the facts than this theory appears to."

Luckily, Barton happens to have his own theory on carbon dioxide:

I might point out just the basic theory. CO2 is a trace gas in the atmosphere. If the volume were equivalent to a United States football field, 100 yards long, 300 feet long CO2 would make up about an eighth of an inch of that field. The dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor. The dominant temperature regulator is based on what we know about the science is cloud formation. The CO2 theory doesn't appear to take that into account.

And on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's preeminent body of climate scientists:

The IPCC scientific group is a very insular. I don't want to be too impolite here, but they do not appear to be interested in finding the truth as much as they appear to be interested in protecting themselves and manipulating the data in a way that proves their preconceived conclusion. That is not the scientific method that I was taught in college.

Obama: Take It Or Leave It

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 12:55 PM EST

Nearly two decades after writing a book that popularized the term "global warming," MoJo contributing writer Bill McKibben founded 350.org. He is chronicling his journey into organizing with a series of columns about the global climate summit in Copenhagen. You can find the others here. Check out MoJo's live stream of collaborative Copenhagen coverage here.

I watched Barack Obama from the back of a drafty warehouse that the United Nations has repurposed as the holding tank for all the NGOs kicked out of the Bella Center. Great idea, except that they didn’t manage to hook up Internet. So now I’m at a nearby coffeeshop monitoring the end of the conference, or world, depending on how you view it.

It's been a curious day. Number one question has been: why is your name scrawled all over those leaked bombshell documents (Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace today called it the "most important piece of paper in the world.") I still have no idea, but of course it matters not at all. What matters is that those papers show that the drama here today is largely greasepaint stuff.

Obama’s speech wasn’t much of a speech—basically, 'take it or leave it,' without even the slightest hint that perhaps US history, and the current state of US politics, have put the planet in a tight spot. Nothing new on offer—though by repeating his 17 percent cut, I’m guessing he's leaving himself room to go to 20 percent. He's still aiming for two degrees, which we now know in UN language means "three degrees." These numbers are in Celsius, and put into Fahrenheit they mean: killer heatwaves and droughts, a world free of ice, sea levels rising into geologic time, and a lot more fun of the same kind.

And if you’re a small, vulnerable, poor country they mean: out of business. Find somewhere else to live.

It didn’t sound like it was Obama’s final speech. He’s going to have to twist arms to get agreement to this package—he's clearly not trying to convince the poor countries, confident they can be either quashed or ignored. China is his target—it needs to be "monitored." Probably they can work out some kind of patch to cover the various gaping holes, though at the moment the seams are showing (a copy of the draft agreement circulating in the hall right now calls for "X reductions" by "Y year" which is not exactly reassuring). There are rumors Obama may have to spend the night to get something done.

If it works, look for many congratulations for his brave intervention. Look for physics to continue operating. 

Copenhagen: Waxman Weighs In

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 11:51 AM EST

Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and lead author of the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in June, is among the official US delegation attending the Copenhagen summit. On Thursday, Waxman and five other Democratic representatives made the case that this legislation, among other things, is evidence that Americans are engaged on the issue of climate change and looking to move forward on an international accord.

By Friday, the mood on reaching an agreement in Copenhagen had dimmed, and President Barack Obama and US negotiators were still deep in discussions with other nations late into the afternoon. I caught a few minutes with Waxman shortly after Obama's speech to gauge his opinion on the negotiations and the likelihood that the US will be able to deliver a climate law similar to his bill.

Mother Jones: How are you feeling about the state of negotiations, especially after President Obama's remarks today?

Waxman: President Obama gave an excellent speech, and just said to everybody, the bottom line is we're all in this together. We need binding agreements, we must reduce the carbon emissions. He just told everybody in this conference not to dither, but to get to work. He himself has been in serious negotiations. I hope he's successful.

Mother Jones: Do you think there's an opportunity for a breakthrough here?

Waxman: I'm not sure. A lot will depend on China. If China agrees to quantifiable and verifiable reductions in carbon emissions and not to be part of the requirements that are placed on everybody else, even though they're the world's number one emitter of carbon pollution now, then I don't see what agreement can be reached, except maybe a framework for future discussions, but not the kind of agreement we'd all hoped for.

Mother Jones: What influence do you think the outcome here will have on the Senate and finishing off the bill you started in the House?

Waxman: I think a good result from the Copenhagen conference would be very helpful in influencing people in the United States and their representatives in the US Senate. But our legislation is not for the world. Our legislation is for the US interests, and our interest is to become for our national security purposes less dependent on foreign oil. We need the jobs that will be created by the technology that will result from [reducing] carbon emissions, and we need to reduce the carbon as well in order to reduce the threat to our environment.

Obama's Copenhagen Speech: The Collapse of a Deal?

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 9:50 AM EST

No deal. Not even a fig leaf.

That seemed to be the implication of President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech at the Copenhagen climate summit. 

He arrived at the Bella Center at 9:30 in the morning and immediately huddled in a non-scheduled and tense meeting with 18 other world leaders, including Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei. As Obama and the others talked, White House officials told reporters that Obama had ripped up his schedule for the day—supposedly the last day of the conference—and was attempting to rescue the troubled negotiations. He apparently did not succeed.

After the meeting ended, the summit began its most high-profile session. Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen opened the gathering, saying that it is "not too often us leaders get a chance to chart out a new course for our planet." No such course was forthcoming. Minutes later, Chinese Premier Wen Jibao hailed his own nation's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But he offered no give on the key matters that had been raised by the United States: China placing its emissions reductions within a binding treaty and subjecting them to outside verification. Wen indicated that China would keep its emissions limits voluntary and unilateral. Next Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva said it would take a "miracle" to reach an accord at Copenhagen. He complained that due to the lack of progress in the negotiations he had been forced to participate in a 2:00 am meeting with other world leaders. He declared that "each country has to have the confidence to do its own oversight"—seemingly siding with China on this front.

Then it was Obama's turn. His eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, "I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt." He maintained that his administration has started to mount an "ambitious" plan to cut emissions. And he contended that it is "in our mutual interest to achieve a global accord in which we agree to  steps, and to hold each other accountable for certain commitments." According to his prepared text, Obama was next supposed to say, "I believe that the pieces of that accord are now clear." (Emphasis added.) Instead, he asserted, "I believe that the pieces of that accord should now be clear." That is, there was no consensus among the major global leaders regarding what a deal would look like--not even one that would paper over the deep differences that have plagued the Copenhagen summit from the start: what targets to set; how to include both developed and developing countries within the same framework; what financing would be available for international programs to help poorer nations contend with climate change.

Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing. But he noted that it was absolutely necessary to verify the reductions commitments of the major emitters. (China is now Major Emitter Number One.) "Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page," Obama argued. And an international pact without such mechanisms, he remarked, "would be a hollow victory." He reminded the conference that the US pledge to contribute to a $100 billion international fund by 2020 was predicated on the establishment of a "broader accord" that contained effective reviews and covered all nations' reductions commitments. 

Obama essentially accused other leaders of preferring "posturing to action." He explained, "I'm sure many consider this an imperfect framework...No country will get everything it wants...There are those developing countries that want aid with no strings attached and no obligations of transparency. And there are those advanced nations who think that developing countries cannot absorb this assistance, and that the world’s fastest-growing emitters [that is, China, India and other major developing countries] should bear a greater share of the burden."

Obama was clearly venting: "We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years. These international discussions...have taken place for two decades. And we have very little to show for it except for a increase in the acceleration of the climate change phenomenon." If an accord is not reached at this summit, he remarked, "we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade—all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible."

This was not a speech of persuasion; it was one of positioning. After the morning meeting, Obama and his aides had obviously calculated that a deal was far off—perhaps not even possible—and that there was not much Obama could say in this speech to grease the way to a meaningful agreement. So the US president forcefully presented his stance, maintaining he was willing to compromise, and chastised others for failing to rise above their own interests. 

This was widely seen at the Bella Center as a sign that talks had collapsed. American environmentalists appeared stunned, as they grappled with the implications: maybe collective global action to address global warming is not possible. The leaders of China, Brazil, and the United States had each acknowledged the threat of climate change and had each cited the steps their nations were taking to combat global warming. But these three short speeches indicated that the industrialized nations and the developing countries might not be able to find a joint path forward.

It's possible that some semblance of some accord that says something about some of the stuff discussed endlessly by the Copenhagen negotiators could still be patched together. After their addresses, Obama and Wen were scheduled to meet. US officials at the conference said that there was still opportunity for progress on several issues. And the convention leaders have asked the thousands of delegate to think about staying until Sunday. But Obama's speech suggested the climate summit could end in failure—perhaps one of historic and literally world-changing proportion.

UPDATE: Since the speeches, Obama and Wen have met twice in one-on-one sessions. Other meetings are under way, with various world leaders huddling in private areas, as the official proceedings grind on. Meanwhile, various texts of a minimal pact have circulated through the convention center. These drafts have not resolved key issues. The big sticking point still seems to be Chinese verification. The two latest drafts have no provisions calling for a legally binding treaty, and they say nothing about future negotiations. But these drafts do have a name: the "Copenhagen Accord."

UPDATE: Obama announced a deal just after 4.30 pm EST, although the outline was vague and it's not yet clear that all countries will sign on.  

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

 

 

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Republicans Thrash Climate Scientists in the Court of Public Opinion

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 4:50 AM EST

Even as President Obama arrived in Copenhagen this morning, the Washington Post and ABC released the latest in a set of public opinion findings that have not only shown growing skepticism about mainstream climate science in the US, but now, negative views of environmental scientists in general.

More specifically, here’s what the new survey found. Forty percent of Americans don’t trust what scientists have to say about the environment; among Republicans, it’s nearly 60 percent. Both numbers are an increase from polling results in the past; and for the public in general, a significant part of the change seems to be coming among political independents.

It is not hard to infer that these numbers have something to do with the "ClimateGate" scandal, a smear against climate scientists that will be long remembered. As time has passed and cooler heads have sifted the charges against the researchers whose private emails were exposed last month, most evidence of wrongdoing has withered away. And the charges that remain, although troubling, are not applicable to the question of whether mainstream climate science is valid—or whether there is reason to act on global warming. In other words, the ClimateGate argument simply isn’t on point.

However, the mass media attention to the scandal is a massive black eye. By seizing upon "ClimateGate" and directing concerted fire against the scientists involved, Republican politicians, activists and global warming "skeptics" and denialists have now arguably caused more damage to the scientific community than the Bush administration did.

And whether President Obama returns from Copenhagen with a victory or not, this public opinion slippage will surely damage the push for domestic climate legislation.

The Guns of December

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 10:02 PM EST

Reading Bill McKibben and others today on the real Climategate—the seeming dedication to failure stalemating the world leaders at Copenhagen—I'm reminded of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. Her Pulitzer Prize winning history detailed the class of idiot-leaders circa 1914 who paved the way to World War I.

If I could cast the WWI story circa 2009, here's how it'd look:

  • For Germany in WWI, obsessed with military superiority, I'd cast America today
  • For France in WWI, obsessed with winning back lost territories, I'd cast Britain today
  • For Britain in WWI, hesitant to get involved in a war on the Continent, I'd cast Canada today
  • For Russia in WWI, huge and malfunctioning, I'd cast China today

As we know, World War I, with 15 million dead, was the warm-up for World War II, with its own class of world leaders leading the world to 70 million dead.

One of the most affecting museum's I've ever visited is the Mémorial pour la Paix (Peace Memorial) in Caen, France, a town utterly devastated in the course of the D-Day landings in 1944. The epicenter of the museum is an exhibit called the Failure of Peace, built along a spiral ramp corkscrewing underground. You descend the ramp from bright and sunny ground level, and along the way you track past the timeline of failure: the Versailles Treaty (the Kyoto Protocol), the appeaser, Neville Chamberlain (Barack Obama), Adolph Hitler (dare I say it? the naysayers). It gets darker, colder, more and more hopeless as you descend into the inevitability of war and chaos.

You know I'm mad about the likelihood of failure at Copenhagen. But, really, I'm sad.
 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday December 18

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 9:15 PM EST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Kids Say the Darndest: Don't believe 12-year-old rape victim, school administrators say.

Gay Days: Especially good week for gays and lesbian in politics.

Rationing Care: Arguments on why mammograms should, or shouldn't, be reduced.

Camelot: On missing Ted Kennedy's voice in the healthcare debate.

Sleazy Sewers: Why the Senate healthcare bill changed due to Hill sleaziness.

Light of Reason: No, sunspots don't cause global warming, and here's why.

Rabbit Hole: Killing the Senate healthcare bill is a bad idea, except to Howard Dean.

Temp to Tax Ratio: New idea for carbon tax: if global temps go up, so do taxes.

Cancer Scare: Too many CT scans can cause cancer, but it depends on which machine.

 

Watch: McKibben, Lomborg, and Kerry on Copenhagen

Thu Dec. 17, 2009 9:15 PM EST

Here are today's FORA.tv clips from Copenhagen. First, Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben explains just how discouraging the conference has been so far. According to current international proposals, he said, "we'll live in hell, or a place with a remarkably similar temperature" by 2010:

 

 

Danish climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg worrys that the conference will yield nothing more than empty promises:

 

 

And yesterday, Sen. John Kerry emphasized the "building anger" at the developed world's sluggish response to climate change: