Blue Marble - December 2009

Good News and Bad as Climate Talks Kick Off

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 2:11 PM EST

It's only the first day of the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, but as I waited in the three-hour line to enter the Bella Center where the conference is taking place, my inbox was already filling up with a flurry of both good and bad news.

Let's start with the good news. There was much celebration over the weekend after the White House announced that Barack Obama was planning to push back his arrival at the summit to the final day—when other world leaders would be present, and when his appearance has the best chance of affecting the negotiations. The White House said that the president expects a "meaningful" agreement and wants to arrive when his presence will be "most productive." The Obama administration also acknowledged that developed nations should provide $10 billion a year by 2012 to help poorer countries adapt to climate change—a major concern for poor nations heading into the summit.

On Monday, the Obama administration is also expected to announce that it has finalized the finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health. This is the final step before the Environmental Protection Agency can begin regulating emissions. The announcement is expected for Monday afternoon, timed to coincide with the start of the climate gathering. The announcement is "absolutely the right decision at absolutely the right time," said Joe Mendelson, Global Warming Policy Director for the National Wildlife Federation in a statement.

Also on Monday, the UN Environment Program released a report conducted by British economist Lord Nicholas Stern and the Grantham Research Institute which found that pledges from both developed and developing countries are actually closer to the cuts that science deems necessary than previously assumed. In other words, the pledges on the table at Copenhagen still fall short, but bridging the gap between what's on offer and what's needed is now a somewhat more maneagable task.

There was also some good news from India, which announced climate targets over the weekend. The country won't accept legally binding targets, but agreed to reduce greenhouse gas intensity between 20 and 25 percent by 2020. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will also attend the summit—yet another high-level visitor for the conference's final days.

And now, the bad news. The G77—the bloc of developing countries—is unhappy with what richer countries have promised so far. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that the US could do more on climate via executive action, rather than waiting around for Congress to act.

There was also disappointment among NGOs at the summit as news broke that the U.S. Export-Import Bank is providing $3 billion in financing to Exxon Mobil Corp. for a natural gas project in Papua New Guinea, instead of funding cleaner forms of energy.

The next two weeks will be filled with similar positive signs and disappointments. There are a lot of issues to be grappled with, some big, some small. There will be moments when it seems like a breakthrough has occurred, and moments where negotiations will seem to be on the brink of absolute failure. It's all part of the grueling process of hammering out a major, contentious international treaty in which every single player has a lot at stake.  

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In Frenzied Copenhagen, Crucial Climate Talks Begin

| Mon Dec. 7, 2009 2:01 PM EST

COPENHAGEN—There was no calm before the storm. At least not over the last few days, not in Copenhagen. The climate change conference begins for real this Monday morning, but the deluge—of information, of people, of noise of all sorts—swept into the city days ago.

Downtown, the wide sidewalks are jammed. Visitors ascend to street level at the central train station, rolling suitcases and opening maps. In bars and restaurants—I noticed this more once a bartender pointed it out—foreigners stare blankly at the Danish coins in their hands and try to figure out how much they’re paying.

Aside from the permanent medley of neon signs—this city might be quaint, but it’s commercialized too—climate-related posters and banners are everywhere. Most advertise Hopenhagen LIVE, a package of concerts, educational pavilions, and a giant illuminated globe in the City Hall Square (the event must have a serious advertising budget). There are posters too for climate-related rallies, concerts, expos, and art exhibits. And booklets, pamphlets, leaflets—whatever—stacked in abundance. The ubiquitous public climate-change art seems designed to provide inspiration or moral orientation. But there’s so much of it that it sort of runs together. 100 Places to Remember Before They Disappear, an outdoor photo exhibit at Kongens Nytorv square, is stunning, but I don’t know how many delegates will take the time to visit installations such as this.

Copenhagen Eve

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 10:20 PM EST
It's been a long wait. Now the coy leaders step forward. May they work hard, discover cooperation, make us proud of our species, and give us hope for our future.
 
 

See You in Copenhagen is a campaign of short films and ads produced by Found Object Films, in cooperation with the UN Foundation and tcktcktck.org to raise public awareness and support civic engagement in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, December 4

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 8:00 AM EST

USA Ranger: Chuck Norris worries Obama will destroy our way of life at Copenhagen.

Xmas Cheer: Made in China still means made with exploited labor.

Going, Gone: Warming is causing species decline even in the isolated Galapagos. [MongaBay]

High Voltage: Chevy's electric hybrid Volt on its way to consumers.

Change of Mind: Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) has a change of heart on coal.

Angry Young Men: New study shows who the angriest Americans are. [LiveScience]

Sound Bite: Sen. Inhofe says Europeans are "dumb" on climate. Ahem.

Windy Day: GE puts $117 million into wind power. [Wall Street Journal]

ClimateGate: Conservatives try to use scientist's leaked emails to derail climate progress.

The Decider: Sen. Jim Webb thinks Obama should step back and let Congress handle climate.

Cost of Rx: Under healthcare bill, some premiums may go up, but many won't.

Pay to Play: Kerry thinks the US should pay more for international climate programs.

Flip-Flopper: McCain's taking heat for his new, post-campaign stance on Medicare cuts.

 

 

Why We Won't Go Broke Cutting Emissions

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 9:33 PM EST

It's what scares many people: Cleaning up our greenhouse gas emissions will bankrupt the world. That fear drives naysayers to neigh and keeps true believers mired in stasis.

Except it's not true. A modelling exercise conducted for New Scientist examined the world ahead for the UK if it meets its pledge to cut emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. (Which is close to what the IPCC says we need to do. Though below what James Hansen believes we need to do.)

How much would the Brit pledge wallop the Brit wallet? Here's a sample of estimated consumer costs increases in British pounds (£1=$1.63 at today's exchange rate). Retail prices would likely rise:

  • 1% higher on clothing: A £500 men's suit will become £5 more expensive
  • 2% higher on electronics: A £1000 laptop would cost £20 more
  • 1% higher on food: The average UK household spends £50 a week on food and this would increases by less than £1
  • 15% higher on electricity: A typical UK household spends £400 a year on electricity and this will jump by roughly £60
  • 0% higher on communications: UK phone bills will be essentially unaffected
  • 140% higher on air travel: A return flight from London to New York would jump from £350 to around £840
  • 2% higher on tobacco: Barring new taxes, the cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes will rise by roughly 10 pence
  • 2% higher on alcohol: The cost of a pint of beer will rise by about 6 pence by 2050
  • 1% higher on cars: A new Toyota Prius, currently about £20,000, will cost £240 more in a low-carbon 2050
  • 2% higher on household goods: The price of a washing machine will rise by a few pounds

Why so cheap? Because the energy used to produce food, alcoholic drinks, and tobacco makes up only 2 per cent of the consumer price.

Nor are these fire sale prices to save the world good only in the UK. A June paper in Energy Economics predicted similar underwhelming price rises in the US. A 50 percent emissions cut here by 2050 would increase most consumer goods prices by less than 5 percent.

The biggest loser in these scenarios? Airlines. Since there's currently no low-carbon alternative to jet fuel. Until that changes, air travel will bear the brunt of carbon pricing, with average fares rising at least 140 percent. On the other hand, I blogged earlier about a study predicting that the European Commission's plan to include the airlines in the continent-wide market for greenhouse gas emissions will likely reap the industry billions, at least in the short run.

Whatever the true airline scenario, I don't see the economic world ending in the minuscule interval between rising airfares and the emergence of technological innovation driven by the promise of monster profits. Just one of the many fortunes waiting to be made as we're dragged whingeing and cringing into the Sustainable Age.

Can Climate Change Drive You Crazy?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 8:07 PM EST

Trying to figure out why you're losing your mind this holiday season? It could be the fact that you've heard Jessica and Ashlee Simpson's rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" three times in Walgreen's since Thanksgiving like I have. Or it could be climate change! King's College London psychiatrists recently published a metastudy of how the many charming side effects of rising temperatures—natural disasters, infectious diseases, mass migration—can really harsh your mental mellow, to say the least. Here are just a few of the ways in which global warming could drive you to distraction:

  • Natural disasters, such as floods, cyclones and droughts, are predicted to increase as a consequence of climate change. Adverse psychiatric outcomes are well documented in the aftermaths of natural disasters and include post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and somatoform disorders.
  • Adverse impacts such as psychological distress, anxiety and traumatic stress resulting from emerging infectious disease outbreaks are also likely to increase if the predicted outbreaks of serious infectious diseases become reality.
  • Coastal change and increased flooding is expected to lead to forced mass migration and displacement, which will undoubtedly lead to more mental illness in affected population.
  • Urbanisation, a phenomenon which will be partially beneficial, for example by increasing opportunities for work and better access to health services, is associated with an increased incidence of schizophrenia in developed countries. In many low- and middle-income countries, mental health provision is already hugely inadequate and is unlikely to be prioritised should further economic collapse occur secondary to climate change.
  • The knowledge of man-made climate change could in itself have adverse effects on individual psychological well-being.

Surprisingly, the study doesn't mention another kind of climate change craziness: denial. And all its attendant weirdness

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Three Questions: Will the EPA Regulate Greenhouse Gases? Is 100% Renewable Energy by 2030 Possible? Are PETA Really Terrorists?!?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 8:00 AM EST

 

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

EPA Petitioned to Regulate CO2 Using Clean Air Act, Cap at 350ppm

On and off for the past year we've heard statements about how the Environmental Protection Agency could really make an end run around Congressional inaction on climate and set a cap on carbon dioxide emissions though the Clean Air Act. Even Al Gore hinted at it during Climate Week NYC. Well now the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org have petitioned the EPA to do just that.

USDA Classifies PETA as Terrorist Threat

PETA is one of the most controversial activist groups operating today. The group's contentious media campaigns, undercover operations, infamous advertising, and high profile demonstrations have made them perhaps the most notorious--and most polarizing--nonprofit organization there is. But are they terrorists? According to the US Department of Agriculture, they are now.

100% Renewables by 2030: Ambitious Plan or Pipe Dream?

A recent study by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, claims that the world could get to 100% renewables by 2030. Considering the immensity of the scale the world's power grids, nobody can't fault these two for lack of vision. But it is realistic, or just something nice to dream about, but without much chances of actually happening?

TreeHugger's Interview with Raul Vazquez, CEO of Walmart.com

Wal-Mart embodies truths and prejudices that reflect our consumer culture. They are a straw-man for a lot of what is wrong. But, especially in recent years, they are a powerful potential leader in trying to be right. Thanks to some networking by our fearless leader, Graham Hill, TreeHugger had an opportunity to speak at some length with Raul Vazquez, CEO of the growing eCommerce powerhouse walmart.com. We hear from his own mouth how walmart.com will implement the sustainability index being developed in cooperation with respected Universities and NGOs, whether walmart.com is out to take Amazon down, and how business on-line is developing for the retail giant.

Debunking the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Conspiracy

One of the strangest things about the ongoing non-controversy over the hacked climate emails is that it's revealed how irrational much of the thinking behind global warming denial really is. It's always been understood that people have fundamental reasons for resisting the idea that man's behavior is causing the climate to change—especially if they're deeply comfortable with said behavior. But I hadn't realized how many people actually—I mean really, truly—believe that climate change is a nefarious conspiracy concocted by elite liberals to... do what, exactly?

UN Targets China's Wind Farms

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 6:25 PM EST

The Clean Development Mechanism, a UN body which helps industrial countries like China cut emissions by paying undeveloped countries to cut their emissions instead, has saved the Chinese government millions of dollars. But many environmentalists worry that China’s renewable energy projects, particularly its wind farms, do not fulfill the CDM's "additionality" requirements. In other words, they could be receiving foreign funds for projects that would have been built anyway. Responding to these concerns, the CDM has suspended some Chinese wind farms until it can be proven that they meet additionality requirements. 

Officials in China were predictably opposed to the decision:

CDM officials raised questions after Beijing cut prices that utilities would be required to pay for wind power, said Lin Wei, general manager of Easy Carbon Consultancy Co. in Beijing, a consultant for CDM projects. Such a price cut might make projects appear to need more foreign financing by reducing their revenues.
"They thought the government believed CDM money would be coming in anyway so the government was making prices lower so that Chinese projects could have extra 'additionality' to get extra funding," Lin said.
However, Wang and Lin said the price cuts reflect lower costs for wind projects as technology improves.
"Of course we don't agree" with the CDM board, Wang said. "They totally know nothing about the real situation in China's wind power (industry)." (emphasis mine)

In the current issue of Mother Jones, Mark Schapiro writes about CDM's potential for manipulation by developed countries and international corporations, and a carbon sink dilemma in Brazil that has displaced the region's indigenous population. Heading into the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the UN's decision to crack down on China's wind farms could signal heightened accountability for the CDM and carbon sinks. But will it only make China a more difficult bargaining partner?

The Story of Cap and Trade

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 10:14 AM EST

Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, a popular web video that argues against consumerism, released a new video yesterday on cap and trade. Like her earlier effort, The Story of Cap-and-Trade features engaging narration and cute, easy-to-understand comic sketches to explain an extremely complex issue.

The problem? Leonard vastly oversimplifies cap and trade and its problems. The video blames the current difficulties surrounding cap and trade entirely on the policy itself, not the lawmakers and special interest groups seeking to load the legislation with exceptions and giveaways. The problems she highlights would dog any proposal to address climate change in the US. If Congress suddenly adopted a carbon tax, the coal, oil, and gas lobbies, aided by their favorite senators, would carve out gaping loopholes for their industries. The policy isn't the real villain  here—it's the politics. 

"The next time somebody tells you cap and trade is the best we’re going to get, don’t believe them," Leonard concludes. But what superior proposal has any kind of meaningful political support? Leonard never attempts to explain this. The reality is that ditching cap and trade now would leave us with no politically viable legislative options to combat climate change at all. 

The estimable David Roberts has a thorough take-down of the video at Grist, which I recommend. And here's the video, so you can decide for yourself:

The Story of Cap & Trade from Story of Stuff Project on Vimeo.

Cute Endangered Animals: Global Warming Edition

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 8:03 AM EST

In honor of Copenhagen, here's one of the US animals the Endangered Species Coalition has dubbed as most in danger from global warming-related threats. You can read the whole list, which includes lynxes, and salmon, and bears (oh my!) here.

One of the animals on the ESC's list is the dimunitive Kauai Creeper, a 4" tall bird that's languished waiting to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Found only on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the creeper (also called the Akikiki) has been on the ESA waitlist since 1994. Now, there's only an estimated 1300 individuals left (down from 7,000 in 1970) most of which live in a 14-square mile patch of swamp.

Sadly, rapid population decline in native birds is not an unfamiliar tale to local biologists. Hawaii is one of the most biodiverse locations in the United States, yet habitat for most animals is restricted due to the island being, well, an island. Not only is land and vegetation limited, invasive species are especially devastating to the small ecosystem. Housecats, for example, prey on adult and juvenile Kauai creepers, feral pigs eat and destroy plants the creepers need for habitat, and mosquitoes carry avian malaria that the birds have no natural defenses against. As global warming ramps up, more and more of Hawaii's forests will become warm enough (55 degrees F or higher) for mosquitoes to thrive and multiply, potentially increasing disease threats to many animals.