Blue Marble - December 2009

Wind Energy Subsidies Pose Opportunity for Corruption

| Tue Dec. 15, 2009 5:37 PM PST

The powerful gusts of air that draw the world's best windsurfers to the coastal town of Santa Lucia Tirajana, Spain, also drew the attention of the community's most corrupt local politicians and businessmen, the New York Times reports. There were municipal plans to build wind turbines just off the coast of the town, waters that are currently home to an annual windsurfing competition. But a yearlong investigation by Spanish police showing abnormalities in the new turbines' financing led to the mayor, five town officials, and two developers being charged with peddling, misuse of public office, and bribery.

Wind energy and other renewable energy technologies may have an eco-friendly image, and have been central at this week's climate change talks in Copenhagen, but they perpetuate another type of green, too. In Europe, subsidies topping 40 million Euro have been allocated for wind farm investment. And Spain is not the only nation dealing with cases of windy fraud. Though authorities say it is impossible to know the extent of fraud in public spending on wind energy, the Times reports that there have been numerous recent investigations throughout Europe. This year, five Corsican nationalists were jailed and fined for embezzling 1.54 million Euro in wind farm subsidies. In Italy, three other investigations of wind subsidy fraud are underway, including one officials have dubbed "Gone With the Wind."

 

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China Opens Massive Natural Gas Pipeline

| Tue Dec. 15, 2009 3:48 PM PST

President of China Hu Jintao opened a massive 1,140-mile natural gas pipeline Monday that will directly connect China to gas reserves in central Asia for the first time, China's official press agency Xinhua reports. Though Monday's announcement was largely symbolic—culminating in Hu turning a ceremonial valve—the new pipeline has significant implications for China, as it now has an alternative to importing most its natural gas through Russia. 

The pipeline connects Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to China's western Xinjiang region and will eventually reach cities like Shanghai, Guangzhau, and Hong Kong. But it isn't just an effective delivery system for up to 40 billion cubic meters of gas for 30 years (about half of what China consumes now): the pipeline represents a shift in Asian trade philosophy. Referencing the ancient Silk Road created in the Han Dyanasty to transport textiles, spices, and other goods throughout Asia, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the pipeline "symbolizes friendship and cooperation," the Interfax news agency reported. Nazabayev appeared with Hu and other heads of state from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at Monday's valve-turning ceremony.

But just because the new pipeline lets China import gas through countries other than Russia doen't mean the Communist country, with its ever-growing economy and ever-expanding energy needs, isn't interested in working with Russia. Two months ago, Russian Prime Minister Valdimir Putun and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao signed a $3.5 billion natural gas deal while Putin was visiting the country.

Blame Canada

| Tue Dec. 15, 2009 2:49 PM PST

You used to be able to count on the United States to be the bad guys at United Nations climate conferences. But this year, while the Obama administration's pledges aren't as ambitious as some might like, the US government is more willing to combat global warming than it has been for years. That's left our northern neighbor, Canada, to emerge as the summit's major stinker.

Perhaps the best sign of Canada's fledgling pariah status was the fact that it was targeted on Monday by the notorious pranksters, the Yes Men. The group issued a fake press release from Ugandan delegates celebrating an "announcement" from the Canadian government proposing "ambitious new emissions-reduction targets and vigorous climate-debt reparations to African nations." Canada now joins Yes Men victims such as George W. Bush, Dow Chemical, and, most recently, the US Chamber of Commerce.

The Yes Men's stunt drew attention to the chasm between Canada's climate policies and those environmentalists wish it would adopt. Back when Canada was governed by the Liberal Party, it ratified the Kyoto Protocol and agreed to cut emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But since the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, his conservative government has walked back from that commitment, arguing that those cuts are unattainable. Canada's emissions have also risen sharply since then—largely due to its increased production of oil in the tar sands of Alberta. Now Harper's government wants to do away with the Kyoto Protocol altogether. At Copenhagen, Canada has only offered a scaled-back proposal to cut emissions 3 percent below 1990 levels.

At last year's climate summit, Canada was voted the Fossil of the Year—an award handed out by Climate Action Network International to the conference's most obstructive country. So far, Canada is on track for a repeat victory—in the daily "fossil" awards at Copenhagen, it has landed in the top three six times. George Monbiot recently wrote that Canada is now to climate as Japan is to whaling. And on Monday, Canada took the second to last place on the Climate Protection Index, a project ranking major polluters on their efforts to curb emissions. Only Saudi Arabia scored lower on the list.

And Canada is about to become even more unpopular. On Tuesday, leaked documents from the Harper administration indicated that the nation is considering even weaker emission reduction targets for fossil fuel industries. The documents suggest that the Tories plan to abandon a 2007 plan that called for cutting emissions from the oil and gas sectors by 48 megatonnes. A new proposal only calls for a 15 megatonne decrease—raising questions about whether the country could reach its stated pledge at Copenhagen of reducing emissions 20 percent by 2020.

Extinct Plant Not So Extinct After All

| Tue Dec. 15, 2009 6:27 AM PST

Some happy endangered species news this week. A California plant thought to be extinct in the wild was recently upgraded to "endangered" after being accidentally uncovered by construction workers. Apparently, they were clearing brush for road construction near the Golden Gate Bridge and a botanist driving by saw the shrub and did a double take. The Franciscan Manzanita, a pretty red-wooded shrub with dark green leaves and white clusters of flowers, was thought to have gone extinct in the 1940s when its last known habitat, a San Francisco cemetery, was moved to make way for residential development. Because the rediscovery was so unexpected, and because the little plant was right in the middle of an active construction site, its fate is uncertain as local agencies discuss how to best handle the situation. Local conservationists are hoping the federal government can protect it under the Endangered Species Act, and according to the Center for Biological Diversity, they'll need all the help they can get. The CBD yesterday filed an intent to sue the Obama administration for dragging its feet and failing to make the "required findings to determine whether 144 species warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act..."

In tangentially related news, the koala may not have much time as a non-endangered species. Besides eating only eucalyptus and battling global warming, the fuzzy little guys have another, less expected threat: chlamydia. Yes, it's true, those cute cuddly marsupials have STDs. The koala population has fallen by nearly half (to around 50,000) since 2003, and many of them died from chlamydia. The koala version of HIV is also becoming more prevalent. Research to develop vaccines for both diseases is underway, but it's uncertain how scientists are exactly going to administer them to koalas in the wild.

 

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Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday December 15

| Tue Dec. 15, 2009 5:47 AM PST

News from our other blogs on health and the environment.

Science v. Gossip: If you want to be taken seriously about warming, get peer-reviewed.

Problem With Joe: Harry Reid has a Joe Lieberman problem that changes daily.

Week One: A breakdown of Copenhagen's first week and biggest moments so far.

Public Option RIP: Medicare buy-in and public option are officially dead, says Kevin Drum.

Best Buy: A Medicare buy-in would crash an already fiscally troubled program.

Flip-Flops: Sen. Lieberman says he'll veto anything with a public option or buy-in.

Rx Poverty: Poor kids are often given meds instead of therapy.

Snail Pie Cures Malnutrition

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 6:49 PM PST

[We interrupt our Copenhagen coverage to bring you some important news about snail pie.]

Snails are different things to different peope. To some, they are garden pests. To children with allergies, they are pets. (I had one as a kid. Her name was Evita.) Still others like to eat them with butter and garlic in fancy French restaurants. And now, a Nigerian nutritionist proposes snails take on another role: nutritious pie filling for hungry Nigerians. Snails, the researcher notes, are cheap and abundant in Nigeria and many other developing nations, and they're a good source of protein, iron, and a bunch of vitamins.

Plus, they're toothsome:

Udofia and her research team baked pies of both varieties and asked young mothers and their children to try the tasty meal. Most of them preferred the taste and texture of the pies baked with the snail Archachatina marginata to those made with beef. The kids and their mothers judged the snail pies to have a better appearance, texture, and flavour.

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What's It Like To Be At Copenhagen?

Mon Dec. 14, 2009 6:45 PM PST

If you're wondering what it's like to be at Copenhagen—surrounded by international leaders, skeptics, scientists, and reporters, all debating one of the most important issues of our time—check out this podcast with MoJo's Kate Sheppard.

On the scene in Denmark, she answers burning questions like: How are people reacting to "Climategate"? What's Lord Monckton like? And will the summit succeed?

Listen here.

For more free Mother Jones podcasts, subscribe here, or in our iTunes store.

 

Octopuses Outsmart Us

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 6:36 PM PST

If you've been following developments in Copenhagen and find yourself doubting primate intelligence, check out the cephalopods, widely regarded as the smartest of the invertebrates. A new paper in Current Biology details the first scientific report of invertebrate tool use in the charismatic little octopus Amphioctopus marginatus, the veined octopus, who has a habit of carrying multiple coconut shells around (awkwardly, you'll see). This cumbersome behavior turns out to be well worth the trouble when the octopus deploys its coconut shell as a magical, instantaneous cloaking device.

I found the footage on YouTube, and although I don't speak German I can pretty well understand what they're talking about. I think.

During 500 hours of observation underwater, the Australian and Brit researchers report some veined octopuses traveling considerable distances—up to 20 meters—while carrying stacked coconut shell halves under their body, an ungainly motion the researchers call stilt walking. The only benefit of stilt walking to the ocotopus is to use the shells later as a shelter or a lair—a different strategy from a hermit crab living inside the discarded shell of a snail. The authors explain:

[The octopus behavior] highlights a key feature of widely used functional definitions of tool use—simple behaviours, such as the use of an object (or objects) as shelter, are not generally regarded as tool use, because the shelter is effectively in use all the time, whereas a tool provides no benefit until it is used for a specific purpose. This rules out examples such as the use of gastropod shells by hermit crabs, but includes situations where there is an immediate cost, but a deferred benefit, such as dolphins carrying sponges to protect against abrasion during foraging, and where an object is carried around in a non-functional form to be deployed when required.

So, if octopuses can think ahead and be prepare themselves for abstract threats and needs, why can't we?

Is Copenhagen Melting Down?

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 5:00 PM PST

On Monday morning, negotiators from African nations shut down the climate talks at Copenhagen. The Bella Center is rife with rumors that rich countries are trying to do backroom deals with poor nations in a bid to drive a wedge in the developing-country bloc. Is the climate summit on the verge of a meltdown? 

Hovering over all this conflict is the ghost of the Kyoto Protocol. As David Corn has explained, there are two separate tracks of talks at the summit—one involving signatories to the Kyoto protocol and one that encompasses the few countries like the US that did not sign the 1997 accord. The African countries want the Kyoto process to be extended because it holds certain developing nations to binding emissions cuts, not mere goals. But the US prefers a brand new political deal that is not legally enforceable. This is partly because US negotiators are apprehensive about getting a formal treaty approved by the Senate and partly because Kyoto's mandatory cuts don't apply to developing behemoths like China and India that will fuel most of the future growth in emissions.

When the Danish government drew up an agenda for the next four days of discussions, the Kyoto Protocol track was apparently not included. So developing nations—particularly the G77 bloc of poorest countries and the Alliance of Small Island States—rebelled. The G77's response has been described by some reporters as a walkout, but in fact its negotiators halted formal talks scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. African negotiators have been roaming the Bella defiantly sporting buttons that read "Kyoto, Yes."

Talks eventually resumed later in the day. But the question of Kyoto's relevancy is fast becoming Copenhagen's fiercest battleground. Developing countries have made it clear that they want to keep the Kyoto Protocol as "the foundation on which you build the rest of the architecture," explains David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America. Today's delay in the negotiations was significant, he said, because it reveals that poorer nations are coming close to treating a binding successor treaty to Kyoto as a dealbreaker.

Revolving Door: Climate Edition

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 3:12 PM PST

Speaking in Copenhagen on Wednesday, EPA Chief Lisa Jackson stressed that President Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. "In less than 11 months since taking office," she said, "we have done more to promote clean energy and prevent climate change than happened in the last eight years."

Even so, Bushworld still exerts considerable influence on US climate policy. A new report, Smoke Screen, released by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last week, reveals that 20 former Bush environmental appointees have taken jobs in government relations and lobbying. They're likely to exert an outsized influence with Republicans in the polarized Senate, which must reject or ratify any treaty that emerges from Copenhagen. With that in mind, here's a pocket guide to Washington's bramble of former Bushies.

James L. Connaughton
Under Bush: Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Bush's chief environmental advisor
Best known for: Advocating a "new environmentalism" that replaces rules with voluntary pollution reduction goals
Revolving door: Now oversees government relations for Constellation Energy, a Fortune 500 energy company that operates coal and nuclear plants

Philip Cooney
Under Bush: Chief of staff for CEQ from 2001 to 2005
Best known for: Editing scientific reports on climate change to omit suggested links between human activity and global warming
Revolving door: A job at ExxonMobil (it's unknown in what capacity or for how long)

Khary Cauthen
Under Bush: Chief of staff for CEQ from 2005 to 2006
Best known for: Keeping a lower profile than his predecessor
Revolving door: Now a registered lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute

Martin Hall
Under Bush: Chief of staff for CEQ from 2006 to 2009
Best known for: His prior job as an aide to Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Congress' leading global warming skeptic
Revolving door: Now vice president of energy policy for FirstEnergy, an Ohio-based utility company that generates most of its electricity from coal

William Holbrook
Under Bush: Director of communications for CEQ from 2003 to 2005
Best known for: His subsequent job as spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under Inhofe.
Revolving door: Now chief flak for the National Petrochemical and Refinery Association

Elizabeth Stolpe
Under Bush: Associate director for toxics and environmental protection for the CEQ
Best known for: Her prior job as a lobbyist for Koch Industries, a leading funder of climate change deniers
Revolving door: Now a lobbyist for Shell Oil