Blue Marble - December 2009

The Pre-Blame Game

| Thu Dec. 10, 2009 9:25 AM EST

The Copenhagen climate summit is one part negotiation and one part blame game—or, more accurately, don't-blame-me game.

When US climate change envoy Todd Stern arrived at the massive Bella Center for the first time and held a press conference on Wednesday, he noted he would be working for the "strongest possible agreement." He quickly ticked off all the actions unilaterally taken by the Obama administration to redress climate change: boosting fuel economy standards, designating greenhouse gases a threat to human health that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act, and establishing a regime to measure and monitor global warming gases produced by major emitters. He fiercely defended the administration's proposed reduction in emissions—about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Knowing that the United States has been widely criticized for not offering to cut more—and that the Europeans have agreed to deeper cuts—he pointed out that the US reductions would accelerate in the following years. He also said that the United States was ready to start financing an international fund to help poorer countries deal with climate change. And he reminded his audience that President Barack Obama would be attending the summit. The message: we're committed, and this summit could work.

Then Stern turned to China. "We need significant action by major developing nations," he said. He noted that that 97 percent of the growth in emissions in the next decade will come from developing nations, and half of that increase will come from China. "There is no way to solve this problem with giving developing countries a pass." The message: if there's no good deal nine days from now, it's not our fault.

While it does seem that most governments would prefer to see a strong climate agreement reached in Copenhagen, they recognize that due to serious conflicts, that might not happen. Consequently, they are preparing for a storm of finger-pointing. Read about their pre-blame game positioning here.

 

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Nuclear Energy's Bad Bet

| Thu Dec. 10, 2009 7:05 AM EST

Well this was predictable. This Monday, Unistar Nuclear Energy, the Maryland-based nuclear company, asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend its application to build a new power plant on New York's Nine Mile Island. A spokesman for Unistar said that the project could not proceed without adequate federal loan guarantees, which essentially pass the project's risk on to taxpayers. Since Unistar began planning its new generation of nuclear power facilities, the dirty truth has been that it can't get the funding it needs unless the government pledges to take care of the risk.

As Mariah Blake reports in the January/February issue of Mother Jones, six of the country's largest financial firms, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, wrote a letter to the DOE in mid-2007 saying they would not fund nuclear projects without complete government support. And although the US has bailed out the nuclear industry before, it looks like we're gearing up for another round of nuclear subsidies:

Most of the industry is banking on a similar strategy—and in the climate legislation staggering through Congress, it just may have found the vehicle. Key Senate Democrats have signaled that they are willing to use nuclear subsidies as a bargaining chip to overcome Republican opposition. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's main lobby, is pushing for at least $100 billion in federal loan guarantees—a dicey proposition given that the Congressional Budget Office has determined that the risk of default would be "well above 50 percent." This raises the question: Will the cost of passing a climate bill be a massive, taxpayer-funded nuclear bailout?

World leaders probably won't discuss nuclear energy at length at this month's climate conference in Copenhagen. But the US nuclear industry is sending a representative to convey the message that nuclear energy is the "largest scalable and most efficient source of emission free electricity" and perfect for "low lying countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands, small island developing states, and the world's least developed countries." Someone should ask the residents of Tuvalu, a drowning island nation, whether they'd prefer nuclear energy or a binding international climate treaty. I'd bet on the latter.

Tiny Tuvalu Makes Big Waves at Copenhagen

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 7:38 PM EST

The low-lying Pacific island nation of Tuvalu may be one of the first casualties of a warming world. It's also one of the smallest countries on earth, with no coveted natural resources or strategic clout to speak of. So when economic powerhouses balk at the idea of deep emissions cuts, what's a small player on the world stage to do? The answer: kick up a fuss. On Wednesday Tuvalu's longtime climate adviser, an Australian named Ian Fry, grabbed the spotlight at Copenhagen by halting talks until negotiators considered a new, legally binding climate protocol that Tuvalu wants adopted instead of merely a political agreement. Tuvalu's alternative treaty outlines more drastic emissions reductions aimed at preventing temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In the current issue of the magazine, I have a piece about Tuvalu's plight. One thing I realized while reporting the story is that for a vulnerable, isolated, powerless nation, political theater is one of the few weapons available. That's why imperiled Tuvalu previously pulled a world-class guilt trip by announcing plans to go completely carbon neutral, and why, at a previous round of pre-Copenhagen climate talks, government ministers from the similarly endangered Maldives convened a cabinet meeting underwater.

But this particular maneuver may have some unintended consequences. It's no surprise that industrialized nations opposed the deep cuts outlined in its alternative treaty, which was ultimately rejected. But not before the proposal drove a wedge in the assembled developing countries at the summit—a division that could affect negotiations as the talks continue. While Tuvalu's proposal won favor with the Association of Small Island States—many of which are sitting in the same precarious boat when it comes to rising sea levels—and some African countries, it was opposed by large developing economies like India, Brazil, Saudia Arabia, and China. That's because those countries want to avoid hard commitments for their own reductions. The G77—the bloc of poorer nations—usually bands together at big international talks. Now, Tuvalu's plea for a more ambitious effort to combat climate change—one that would give it a shot at survival—has exposed a rift in their ranks.

Checking Palin's Funny Facts

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 7:17 PM EST

I wish I'd thought of this. Thankfully, James Hrynyshyn at the Island of Doubt on Scienceblogs did. He decided to do what the Washington Post declined when it published Sarah Palin's imaginary science in an op-ed piece today. Hrynyshyn tackled Sarah's facts:

"The e-mails reveal that leading climate 'experts' deliberately destroyed [deleted copies of] records, manipulated adjusted data to 'hide the decline' in global select North American temperatures [tree-ring proxy data that conflicted with observational records], and tried to silence [challenge] their [non-expert] critics' by preventing them from publishing [competency and the wisdom of allowing flawed papers to appear] in peer-reviewed journals. What's more, [T]he documents show that there was no a real consensus even within the CRU crowd. [While s]ome scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates reliability of temperatures [proxy data] from centuries ago [the last three decades, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, [the observational data since 1850 only confirms the science behind anthropogenic climate change]."

Hope is revived that WaPo will print my Op-Ed on UFOs! I've got rockin' opinions.

Solar Eyesores

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 4:53 PM EST

No one said saving the environment would be pretty, but suburban homeowners associations are blocking solar panel installations because they think they’re ugly, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC.com. Kevin Drum wrote that his homeowners association (HOA) would go ballistic if he installed panels on his roof, and he's not alone as homeowners around the nation are battling their associations for the right to mount the energy savers on their property. The HOAs' aesthetic arguments against energy conservation has pro-solar groups pushing for the federally protected right to solar installation. I contacted advocate Raymond Walker, Standard Renewable Energy’s Senior Vice President, to get the Houston-based solar installer's take on the right to install panels, even if the neighbors don’t like the color.

Q&A: Are Rich Nations Being Honest Brokers at Copenhagen?

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 1:08 PM EST

Will backroom deals among rich nations lead to death and devastation for poorer ones? That's the fear of negotiators from world's most impoverished countries—a bloc known as the Group of 77, or G77—especially after an early draft of proposed negotiating text was leaked to the media on Tuesday. It outlined a weak agreement that required fewer emissions cuts from wealthy nations. In the conference's first flashpoint, G77 negotiators stormed into a main hall in the middle of the busy conference center. "We will not die quietly," they chanted.

"We have been asked to sign a suicide pact," declared Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77. The proposed levels of warming that the draft would allow mean "certain death for Africa," he said. The group also slammed the proposed levels of funding from rich nations to help developing countries adapt to climate change and curb their own emissions. "Ten billion dollars is not enough to buy us coffins," charged Di-Aping, according to reports from the scene.

The leaked draft is not necessarily the negotiating position for many developed nations. But it has raised suspicions that rich nations aren't being honest brokers. Mother Jones talked to Di-Aping on Tuesday night about the draft and what it means for those countries for which the talks at Copenhagen are already a matter of survival.

To read the interview, click here.

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Copenhagen's Skeptic Tank

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 11:08 AM EST

The Bella Center, the venue hosting the Copenhagen climate negotiations, is overflowing with advocates seeking action on climate change. But their opponents have turned out in force too. They're a little harder to identify than, say, the activists walking around dressed as trees. But working the crowds are some of the biggest climate skeptics in the business. I spotted British climate change denialist Lord Christopher Monckton on Monday, surrounded by reporters. Leighton Steward, the retired oil executive who now heads Plants Need CO2, is also here.

There's also the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, (CFACT) a.k.a. Climate Depot, which is run by Marc Morano, the former communications staffer for Sen. James Inhofe. CFACT has brought along Fred Singer, who runs the Science & Environmental Policy Project, a benign-sounding denier think-tank, and Steve Milloy, Fox News columnist and publisher of JunkScience.com. CFACT were also able to get credentials for the conference  as "a UN accredited NGO." (CFACT, of course, spends a great deal of its time trashing the United Nations' legitimacy.)

Americans for Prosperity, the fossil-fuel funded astroturf group, will be making an appearance. And the Irish filmmaker behind denialist doco Not Evil, Just Wrong, Phelim McAleer, is Tweeting live from the conference.

Other denialist luminaries expected to show up over the next week include Sen. James Inhofe and his "Truth Squad", which will reportedly include Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso. On Tuesday, a group of House Republican skeptics announced that they are making the trip to Copenhagen—including Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Darrell Issa of California and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

Why Sarah Palin Is Good for the Planet

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 3:01 AM EST

Here's good news for the planet: Sarah Palin has become perhaps the leading US foe of the Copenhagen summit and efforts to redress climate change.

While on her book tour, the governor-who-quit has been Twittering regularly about her adventures. Most of her tweets have a God-bless-America tone:

* Privileged 2 now meet w MN folks w families n Alaska;1 realizes how intimate r nation is as we travel&hear of connections all Americans have

* Headed to Walter Reed hospital this morn to meet wounded warriors;will give them msg of support from patriots who love these selfless troops

*Flying 2 Dallas now where bus meets us 2 get early start tomrrw w 1000s of good Texans who are lot like Alaskans:independent/bold/patriotic

But when she's not tweeting about all the wonderful Americans she meets across the wonderful United States, Palin has been zapping out Twitter messages about global warming--or the lack thereof:

* Stand by for Facebook entry on Obama's climate change "experts" & their latest shenanigans. Thank God "Climategate" truth is being revealed!

* Leave chilly TX(poor evidence of global warming today)4 Virginia event&speech tonite n DC;Glad Todd got 2 lv construction project 2 join us!

*Copnhagn Climate Summit;Obama should boycott in light of bogus "findings"Public leary re:snake oil science,he must take stand on climategate

* 2 much of "global warming" agenda is merely to halt responsible developmnt;sound science must b foundation 4 Copnhagn decisions,not politics

On Wednesday, as the Copenhagen conference was under way, she published an op-ed in The Washington Post, denouncing the climate change crowd, claiming (errantly) that the so-called Climategate controversy proves there's no significant scientific consensus, and asserting climate change is not connected to human activity: "while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes." (Actually, the issue is climate change, not weather change.)

Palin is supplanting Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as the nation's most prominent climate change denier. Her stance is nothing new. On Palin's first day as John McCain's running-mate in 2008, she said in an interview, "I'm not one though who would attribute [climate change] to being man-made." This past July, she wrote a Washington Post op-ed decrying the pending cap-and-trade legislation, without once referring to climate change. In that recent Facebook note she tweeted about, Palin contended, "we cannot primarily blame man’s activities for the earth’s cyclical weather changes. The drastic economic measures being pushed by dogmatic environmentalists won’t change the weather, but will dramatically change our economy for the worse." She went on:


Copenhagen's Legacy: A Stronger China?

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 9:54 PM EST

The slight prospects for a deal at Copenhagen are already being pinned largely on the US and China. But with Obama's hands tied behind his back partly by the US Congress, with China already demonstrating leadership on renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts, and with both the developing and developed world hanging on Beijing's every word, the success or failure of Copenhagen will in large part depend upon China.

In a sense, Copenhagen isn't just about agreeing to agree on future carbon cuts or aid and technology transfer to developing countries. It's about how countries position themselves to lead the dialog going forward. Now's China's chance to shine, and we have to hope that it will.

The crucial role that China can play at Copenhagen hasn't been lost on China's negotiators or leaders. For decades they led a country notorious for its flagrant disregard for the environment, and with deep suspicion of foreign opinions. But for a handful of years, starting mainly with the awarding of the Beijing Olympics in 2001, China's government has grown determined to show the world it's cleaning up. And not just because it looks good. A cleaner environment will make real money, and prevent the social and political fallout that could come with continued environmental disaster.

Not surprisingly, China sees Copenhagen as its best opportunity yet at illustrating its commitments to the environment. If environmental controls were once at odds with the government's sense of self-determination and confidence, such controls are now becoming firmly part of that sense of power.

If climate change was once an excuse for the first world to (quite hypocrtically) tell China how to behave, now it's seen as a chance for China to show the rest of the world how to behave. To borrow Al Gore's (somewhat mistaken) formulation about the word 危机 weiji, the country that once looked like a paragon of crisis now exudes opportunity. And China's leaders, masters of both pragmatism and propaganda, may recognize that better than anyone.

Whatever the outcome may be of the climate negotiations -- and between China's and the US's still modest carbon targets, much remains to be done -- the best overall result of Copenhagen will be a China that's more confident than ever on the world stage. Combined with the country's booming economic and political (to say nothing of military) power, that kind of confidence is a great asset to both Beijing and the rest of the world. Whether you're talking about renewable energy or currency policy or political freedoms, the last thing anyone needs is a big important and strong country with a chip on its shoulder. That sense of insecurity only serves to isolate, antagonize and estrange -- and turn global concerns like climate change into merely political sore spots.

The dangers of China's historical inferiority complex were summarized in a great article last year by Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books. Schell, head of the Asia Society's center on US-China relations, describes the ways in which a national narrative of humiliation has served the power interests of China's leaders, at the often untold expense of its people. The country's "century of humiliation" was the subtext of the nasty international back-and-forth that ensued following the riots in Tibet last year, he observes, and of its vigorous and somewhat ugly reach for the most gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.

To be sure, China had much to be proud of as a nation at the glorious opening ceremony. And yet, as Schell quotes Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams: China And Sports, 1895-2008, "Through their coverage and handling of the Beijing torch relay, the West seemed to remind the Chinese they were still not equal and they were still not good enough."

But climate change -- once a bitterly divisive issue between China and the west -- could ferry China and all of us out of this narrative. At a meeting at the Asia Society recently about US-China cooperation over carbon capture (US pays, China builds, both sides benefit), I heard Schell invoke a new vision of China:

China's rise has been accompanied by America's decline. This does have one very good effect: for the first time in 150 years, we find this Sino-US relation playing field, which used to be like this - [he held his hand diagonally] in terms of pop culture, politics, soft power -- more like this [hand horizontal]. But this new leveling means we will cofront each other with new equality... The Chinese strength, its new confidence, and a level playing field, comes with a prospect for a better relationship.

 

A better relationship will be crucial on all fronts, not least the climate one. For all the competitiveness of a global low carbon economy, climate change is ultimately not a zero-sum game. Like China, it's a crisis that could be an opportunity. By increasingly putting pragmatism before propaganda, Beijing is showing it recognizes that. If it can locate the leadership to get the developing world to follow suit, and enter into cooperation with the developed world with a greater sense of confidence, China will shed its status as the world's environmental villain. That would inspire even greater confidence in the future among both African leaders and US senators.

If China assumes the role it's earned at Copenhagen, for perhaps the first time on the world stage, it can demonstrate the great responsibility that comes with its great power. In doing so, it would be remaking much more than its image.

This story was reported for Treehugger as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the constantly updated feed here. Mother Jones’ comprehensive Copenhagen coverage is here, and our special climate change package is here.

Itsy Bitsy Mercury Crept Up the Polar Bear's Snout

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 8:18 PM EST

We all know polar bears are suffering from a melting Arctic. We know they're being found far out at sea, far from shore. Some have been seen drowning.

Well now it turns out the loss of their mobile ice islands isn't the only problem. A warming world may well be poisoning them too. In ways no one  imagined.

Here's how: A new study in the journal Polar Research has made the important finding that polar bears feed from one of two different food webs. Each contains mercury. But one is worse than the other.

  • The phytoplankton food web derives from the free-floating single-celled plants inhabiting the sunlit layer of ocean.
  • The ice algae food web derives from the microscopic plants living on the underside of the icepack covering the frozen ocean.

The researchers figured out which was worse by teasing data from hundred-year-old museum samples of polar bears. They analyzed late-19th- and early-20th-century polar bear hair for the chemical signatures of nitrogen isotopes, carbon isotopes, and mercury concentrations.

In other words, they took a look back in time to the period before anthropogenic mercury emissions escalated ferociously.

What they discovered was that the polar bears who get most of their nutrition from the phytoplankton-based food webs carry heavier mercury burdens that those who feed primarily on ice algae-based food webs.

A finding that does not bode well for polar bears living in an increasingly iceless world.

Listen up, Copenhagen. It's not about the weather.