Blue Marble - December 2010

Hillary Clinton Under Fire for Ties to Pipeline Lobbyist

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 2:40 PM EST

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was already under fire from environmental groups and some senators after she indicated in late October that a controversial pipeline proposal from Canada to Texas is likely to be approved, despite the fact that environmental review of the project is ongoing. Now, several of those groups are questioning Clinton's ties to the top lobbyist for the pipeline company.

Paul Elliott was Clinton's national deputy director during her campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Now he's the top lobbyist for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the 1,661-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands all the way to refineries in Texas. Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law, and Corporate Ethics International this week submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications between the agency and Elliot—in the interest of determining whether the State Department "is fulfilling its obligations to conduct a thorough and transparent review of the environmental and public health dangers" of the proposed pipeline.

"The State Department has already put its ability to effectively and fairly judge the serious environmental dangers of this pipeline in question," says Alex Moore, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "The Obama administration has a duty to thoroughly assess this pipeline’s costs to public health and our environment. We think the White House should reassign review of this pipeline to ensure that the best interests of the public, not Big Oil, take priority."

Last month, several groups (including FOE) argued that Clinton should remove herself from the deliberations because her October comments indicated she was "biased" in favor of approving it—and that was before they highlighted her link to Elliott.

The State Department issued a statement Tuesday evening (following up on a question at an earlier press conference), arguing that it does not believe the association constitutes a conflict of interest: "The Department is considering this permit application on its merits. The Department is not, and will not, be influenced by prior relationships that current government officials have had."

Since the pipeline would cross an international boundary, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of Clinton's agency. But other agencies have weighed in, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which last summer gave State's assessment of the impacts of the Keystone XL a failing grade. The State Department is now considering whether to approve the pipeline, or do a more thorough environmental review. The department is expected to issue some sort of decision in early 2011.

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Fox Rejects "Notions" Like Recorded Temperature Data

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 10:48 AM EST

Not that there's much mystery about what the folks at Fox News think about global warming, but a memo that Media Matters unearthed today really shows how backwards things over there, and that the denialist message is coming from the top. Here's the gist:

In the midst of global climate change talks last December, a top Fox News official sent an email questioning the "veracity of climate change data" and ordering the network's journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."
The directive, sent by Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, was issued less than 15 minutes after Fox correspondent Wendell Goler accurately reported on-air that the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization announced that 2000-2009 was "on track to be the warmest [decade] on record."

I can't decide which is more problematic—that they choose to dispute the very fact that it is warming at all, something that is rather hard to argue with, or that the memo came in response to a report from Copenhagen that accurately depicted the science. In either case, the memo is a good insight to how things work over at Fox, and why they've so successfully confused viewers about even the basic question of whether the planet is warming. Here's the memo:

Subject: Given the controversy over the veracity of climate change data...
...we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.

Yep, at Fox, data like the recorded temperatures aren't facts—they're just "notions." It's so much less complicated that way!

Carbon's Storage Problem Above Ground and Below

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 7:59 PM EST

Today, MongaBay reports that sequestering carbon underground may result in increased earthquakes, releasing the carbon. According to Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, CO2 injected into the earth can activate faults. And although the earthquakes triggered by such injections would only be "moderate," as someone who lives in the Bay Area, I'd love to find a non-earthquake related alternative. At any rate, as Zoback points out, there's too much carbon to shove it all underground, even if we wanted to.

Though humans are trying to find ways to store CO2 and other greenhouse gases, they aren't the only ones producing them. In fact, as this piece in Wired mentions, volcanoes released a huge amount of greenhouse gases 250 million years ago, a release that is suspected of causing climate changes that triggered a mass extinction. The extinction event, called the Permian-Triassic Extinction, killed 90% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial species and was more devastating than the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Some scientists say that due to human-related climate change, we're on track to see another huge extinction event. Despite the discovery new species, like this adorable lemur, we're still expected to see around a quarter of all species go extinct or close to it by 2050. And that 25% estimate is not inclusive of any releases from huge volcanic events or earthquakes. "These estimates show the importance of rapid implementation of technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and strategies for carbon sequestration," the authors of a key paper on species extinction wrote in 2004. Six years later, the US government has been leaning toward underground sequestration, slating $4 billion for carbon storage and capture and recently giving close to $600 million for capture technology research and development. But even if the US (one of the top GHG emitting countries, incidentally) does find a way to sequester a significant amount of carbon underground, with the chance of earthquakes, life-snuffing leaks, and unknown environmental effects, it'll be a hard job convincing the people living above the proposed carbon stores that the technology's benefits outweigh its downsides.

More Thoughts on Cancun

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 7:01 PM EST

I penned a wrap-up report on the Cancun climate talks in the wee hours of Saturday morning, just before rushing to catch a flight back to the US. Now I've had some time to ponder the agreement.

In short, nearly everyone acknowledges that the broad goals nations agreed to in Cancun, which largely mirror those outlined in the Copenhagen accord, fall far short of what is actually needed to avert disastrous impacts of climate change. While leaders have, on paper, committed to limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the pledges so far won't meet that. Instead, they leave the world on a path to a temperature rise of 3 to 3.9 degrees Celsius—dangerously high for the most vulnerable regions of the world. Meanwhile, small island states and other vulnerable nations are still arguing that 2 degrees is already too much; leaders should aim for 1.5 degrees.

The Cancun agreements also leave some of the thorniest questions about the legal status of international climate deals unanswered. Whether industrialized nations will extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol (excluding, of course, the US, which never ratified it) was a major subject of disagreement at COP16. Japan and Russia said no way, while developing nations have stood firm that dropping the only legally binding instrument to curb emissions would be a deal-breaker for them. There was really no resolution on that issue in Cancun; instead, it was punted to next year's meeting in Durban, South Africa—even closer to the looming 2012 expiration date for the first commitment period for Kyoto. The debate probably isn't going to get any easier in the next 12 months.

I think Sivan Kartha of the Stockholm Environment Institute put it best when he noted that it's not yet clear whether the one-year delay will serve as "a lifeline or a noose" for Kyoto. Unless something changes significantly in the next year, it sure looks to me like the latter. This is largely because there's no real sense yet of where the separate track of negotiations, the one that would bring the US and China, into an agreement is heading in terms of its legal form. As many times as US climate envoy Todd Stern has insisted that the US doesn't have a say on Kyoto, it really does—if only because the tension around it is the fact that there's very little faith globally that the US is going to pass a new domestic climate law and/or ratify a treaty for at least another two years (if ever). So until the legal path of a new agreement takes shape, the fate of Kyoto will continue to plague negotiators.

That said, the outcome in Cancun was, I think, as positive as it could have been given the scaled back expectations. Negotiators accomplished what they set out to at the summit, and 193 of the 194 countries there left satisfied—or at least as satisfied as anyone really can be when you're trying to reach global consensus. But more than the outcome, it was heartening to see negotiators actually happy with the process, especially after the muddled end to the Copenhagen climate talks a year ago. Sure, President Obama and a small group of leaders were able to hash out a deal last year that largely serves as the basis for the Cancun agreement. But it ended in utter chaos—with countries feeling betrayed and shut out, and the body unable to formally adopt the deal. Contrast that to the multiple rounds of standing ovations that the Mexican presidency received Friday night and into Saturday morning and the near-unanimous agreement on adopting the package.

The cheers were more for the process than the substance, but that means something in the context of these climate summits. It's really, really difficult to get the countries of the world to agree to anything. Doing so takes masterful mediators, trust among the parties, and it takes time—probably more time than the pace of climate change really allows us, unfortunately.

I'll have a few more posts in the coming days about specific portions of the Cancun agreement. In the meantime, here are a few other perspectives.

Audio: Wikileaks and the Cancun Summit

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 4:07 PM EST

The US embassy cables released by the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks have rattled diplomats across the globe, revealing an unvarnished look at US foreign policy on a number of issues, from Iran’s nuclear program to relations with China.

But what about climate change?

Just as the United Nations conference on greenhouse gas emissions wraps up in Cancun, new cables have been released that suggest the US may have strong-armed developing countries, such as the Maldives and Saudi Arabia, into signing last year’s climate change accord in Copenhagen. The memos also reveal an astonishing amount of pessimism on the part of some world leaders, such as European Union President Herman Van Rompuy, regarding the chances of success at Copenhagen and Cancun.

The WikiLeaks revelations have prompted charges of "bribery" and "secrecy" at the Cancun conference. To get a sense of how the cables may complicate the negotiations, guest host Sal Gentile spoke with Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire, an online energy publication that covers climate change issues. Friedman has written about the cables, and joined Need to Know by phone from Cancun, where she’s covering the UN conference.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Progress on Climate Fund, but Questions Remain

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 3:09 PM EST

By all accounts, the progress made on climate in Cancun last week was a modest step. At the conclusion of the summit, 193 world leaders formalized an agreement that follows through on some of the commitments they made at the climate summit the year before, but punted a lot of the big questions to the future. Among the more concrete steps was the official creation of a global climate fund—though much of the specifics on that front are also still unclear.

The agreement includes the establishment of a $100 billion fund by 2020 that will help poor countries both adopt clean-energy technologies AND? avoid the carbon-intensive development that got the world stuck in this climate change problem in the first place. The fund would also help those countries adapt to the changes that are already taking place and may be unavoidable in the future.

Developed nations agree to "mobilize" billions of dollars for what has been dubbed the "Green Climate Fund." But one of the key questions still lies in the use of that word, "mobilize." This doesn't just mean that developed countries are going to donate that amount through public funds; given the economic situation many governments are facing right now, few are expecting that to happen. Instead, those funds are probably going to come though more innovative mechanisms.

To address this issue of where those funds could come from, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon earlier this year formed the High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing, which was tasked with finding new ways of generating money for the fund. The options the group listed included an emission fee on international aviation and shipping, the revenues from the sale of emission permits, and the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels. But leaders gathered in Cancun didn't really address the question of where the funds would come from in their final agreement. So, right now, the fund is basically an empty account, and developed countries still have to figure out how they're going to put money in it.

Development groups are pleased, however, that they did establish the fund, and that the oversight bodies for it will represent a balance between developing countries and the donors. A transitional committee, which will spend the next year (or more) determining how exactly the fund will work, will represent a realistic balance between the developed/developing world, with a focus on the areas most impacted by climate change. It will have 40 members, 15 from the donor countries and 25 from developing nations, and will include seven members from Africa, seven members from Asia, seven members from Latin America and the Caribbean, two members from small islands, and two members from the bloc of least developed countries. The fund's governing board—the group that will decide how to dole out the funds when it is actually set up—will have 24 members, half each from developing and developed countries.

But there are a couple of big questions and potential issues. One is the role of the World Bank in the fund, as the agreement designates the multinational bank as the interim trustee of the fund. The interim trusteeship is scheduled for review three years after the fund is operational. The United States negotiating team fought to get the World Bank as the trustee, but developing countries aren't particularly enthusiastic about the bank playing any role in the fund. For one, the Bank specializes in loans, rather than donations. And it has a dismal record on energy financing, most recently backing a massive new coal-fired power plant in South Africa earlier this year.

The World Bank, said Siziwe Khanyile of the Groundwork Project in South Africa in a statement, "should be allowed no role in the delivery of climate finance." "The World Bank has already harmed Africa enough, it cannot be trusted with the responsibility for responding to climate change, which threatens many Africans' very survival," said Khanyile.

There are also concerns about how the money will be spent. The short-term finance that countries have already started providing is going overwhelmingly to mitigation efforts, while just 10 percent is going to adaptation, despite the fact that the expenditures are supposed to be balanced between the two. And there is a good deal of concern that most of the funds are actually just repackaged from other development aid programs rather than representing new and additional spending. An analysis from the World Resources Institute found that many of the pledges made so far are "restated or renamed commitments already made in the past."

That's not to say groups aren't happy that the fund exists; whether it would even get off the ground was in question for most of the two-week negotiations. Its establishment is among the more noteable outcome of the two-week summit.

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Can You Unplug Your Fridge at Night To Save Money and Energy?

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 6:30 AM EST

This interesting question from Econundrums reader Myk recently caught my attention:

I have often wondered if it would be possible to unplug my fridge at night when I know for certain that no one will need to open it for eight hours. Would the unit keep in the cold if the doors remained closed?

The short answer is no, says LeeAnne Jackson, health science policy advisor at FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Refrigerators should be maintained at a constant temperature setting at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below," writes Jackson in an email. "Numerous foods in your refrigerator might have bacteria on them, and the cold temperature inhibits the bacteria from multiplying (or at least slows it down). If the food warms up, the bacteria will reach harmful levels faster." For this reason, the USDA recommends that food left in an unplugged, unopened fridge for more than four hours be tossed. (Frozen items left in a full freezer stay good for two days; in a half full freezer it's more like 24 hours.)

And even if you're willing to risk spoiling your food (or you only keep in your fridge food that can withstand higher temperatures), the energy savings aren't significant, since "if the refrigerator is unplugged more energy will be used to cool the refrigerator back down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit than if the refrigerator simply maintains the temperature at 40 degrees," says Jackson.

Bruce Nordman, an energy efficiency researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, basically agrees with Jackson. "You do use energy to go back to the original temperature, but should save some with the higher temperature," he says. "However, the savings are strictly proportional to the amount of time at the higher average temperature, so you only save a lot if the temperature goes way up." Which, of course, you wouldn't want it to, given the bacteria problem.

Want to save energy in your fridge? Here are six top tips for maximizing the efficiency of your refrigerator, from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.

Cancun Climate Breakthrough

| Sat Dec. 11, 2010 9:41 AM EST

It's not perfect, and it's not binding, but international climate negotiators have struck a deal.

The final hours in Cancun were a world of difference from the closing night of the Copenhagen climate talks. Last year's summit closed with drama, confusion, and plenty of unhappy delegations, but the Mexico conference came to an end with multiple standing ovations for the host country and widespread agreement among countries to approve the text of an agreement.

It was after 3 a.m. when the parties adopted the two agreements—one that delays a decision on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and another laying out in more detail a new agreement on climate that includes major emitters like the US and China. Of the 194 countries represented in Cancun, 193 backed the text—which, while it falls short on many fronts, represented "a new era in international cooperation on climate change," said Patricia Espinosa, the minister of foreign affairs for Mexico and president of the summit. Much of what is included in the 32-page agreement for a new climate agreement is based on the spare Copenhagen Accord, formalizing it within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The greatest success may have been that the Mexican organizers, particularly Espinosa, were able to restore faith in the process. India's environment Jairam Ramesh praised Espinosa as a "goddess" for her bringing together the parties around an agreement. "You have not only crafted a balanced agreement but most importantly you have restored the confidence of the international community in multilateralism and the multilateral process at a time when the confidence had hit a historic low," he said. "I believe we have launched a process where the trust deficit has been considerably bridged."

Broadly, the agreement accomplishes most of what observers hoped it would heading in two weeks ago: It records the commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions that developed and developing countries made in Copenhagen, establishes a framework for transparency, sets up a global climate fund with the goal of providing $100 billion in financing to developing countries by 2020, and establishes an initiative aimed at curbing deforestation.

Observers and many parties acknowledged that the progress was modest, and that the emission pledges still fall short of the stated goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Those pledges are not legally binding—nor do they answer the outstanding questions about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, which binds most industrialized nations to emmissions targets, and which is set to expire in 2012.

Not everyone is entirely happy with the final text. Bolivia objected to the adoption of the agreements, saying it did not require enough of wealthy nations. Ambassador Pablo Solon said his country "is not prepared to sign a document which means an increase of the average temperature which will put more human lives in a situation close to death." But Espinosa moved to adopt the agreement anyway, calling it "one party trying to impose a right of veto upon the will of the conference." Solon objected to the move to override dissent, a departure from the usual practice to accept agreements only with complete consensus. "Today it is Bolivia, tomorrow it could be any other country," said Solon.

Most delegations, however, were eager to walk away with something they could declare a win—including the US and China, a signal that the language in the text bridged differences between the two countries about emissions targets and how they would be tracked by other countries.

"What we have now is text that, while not perfect, is certainly a good basis for moving forward," said US climate envoy Todd Stern. Xie Zhenhua, Stern's Chinese counterpart, gave similarly positive remarks.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday December 10

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 7:15 PM EST

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Calling Houston: Where are the Republican scientists

Rule of Law: Wtih a GOP-heavy House, the EPA needs to start cracking the whip.

Bottom Line: Why aren't deficit commissions dealing with health care?

Non-Start: Abortions aren't covered by federal funds, but GOP lawmakers are still fighting.

FAQ: A reporter investigates why his doctor gave him an antibiotic for a common cold.

Helping Haiti: A guide to charities fighting cholera and disease in Haiti.

 

The Cancun End Game

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 6:40 PM EST

It's a little over halfway through what is supposed to be the final day of negotiations in Cancun, but whether resolution is coming anytime soon is still unclear—much less what exactly it will even look like. Delegates and observers are scrambling to get a hold of the latest text of potential agreements and parse what it means, but there are still outstanding existential questions about outcome.

The fate of the Kyoto Protocol remains the biggest question here, largely because everything else hangs on it. Russia threw a major wrench in negotiations by formally announcing what everyone assumed, that they would not commit to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Japan made waves on that front in the first days of the conference, and it has not backed off. "A second commitment period is not the appropriate, effective, or fair way to tackle climate change," Japanese negotiator Akira Yamada reaffirmed Thursday night.

Both countries have said they want a new agreement—one that includes major emitters like the US and China, as only about 27 percent of the world's emissions are covered under Kyoto. "Now we feel little common responsibility," said Yamata, referring to countries they don't feel are carrying adequate weight at this point in time. The problem is, there's no clear signal now that a new agreement is going to be legally binding, or at least won't be any time soon. The other track of negotiations here have gone painfully slowly—last year's talks produced the non-binding political agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord, and it's not even yet clear whether those relatively low-ambition targets will be formalized in Cancun.

The announcement, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "sent shockwaves through the negotiations." Meyer noted that it seems like the countries are trying to use Kyoto to force the US and China to the table on a new deal, though it doesn't look like that's being particularly effective. In a meeting with the Japanese minister, Meyer warned that killing Kyoto "would feed the forces of denial in the United State that are trying to block the president's plan" to meet the pledge it made in Copenhagen.

Letting Kyoto expire is a deal-breaker for developing countries, who made their position known once again on Friday. "The African group is committed to seeing a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol," said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu environment minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo and chair of the Africa Group. "This is what is required to keep us safe."

He balked at the idea that African nations and other developing countries would be asked to formalize commitments made under the Copenhagen agreement without any assurance that the only legally binding instrument, Kyoto, is going to continue to hold developed nations to their pledges. "Those people are willing to do things, but they would like to see some sign," he said. "It's a confidence building exercise. "

He also expressed hope that the European Union would take a more firm stance on continuing Kyoto. While he noted that he views EU as a partner in this and believe that they themselves are committed to continuing their pledges, a more explicit statement would be reassuring. Instead, he said, "the EU seems to be obsessed with some country across the Atlantic."

But representatives of the EU have stressed they are also intent on the new deal as a condition for moving forward on the 13-year-old protocol. "Kyoto as such is not enough," said Joke Schauvliege, Flemish minister for the environment, at a Friday morning presser. "There must be more if we really want to combat climate change."

Even if they figure out a way to deal with Kyoto, there are still a number of questions about the legal form that agreements will take. It's not clear yet whether the new deal would effectively replace Kyoto, or if the two would exist simultaneously, or if the new agreement is even on the path to being legally binding. That's another big question still to be pounded out in the final ours.

And it's still not clear what will emerge in the final text of a new agreement, and whether it will be agreed to. The US canceled its press conference Friday afternoon. Its negotiating team has been insistent that a final agreement here move all parts of a package forward, and, as of US climate envoy Todd Stern's last public statements, the team was not content with language on the issue of transparency. Other countries—and many observers—have harshly criticized the US for threating to hold up elements of the package like financing for developing countries to deal with climate and a mechanism to deal with deforestation in order to bargain on transparency.

Brazil's Ambassador chief negotiator Luiz Figueiredo emerged from a meeting with the BASIC countries—the short-hand for the four large developing countries, Brazil, South Africa, India and China—expressing confidence that those countries would approve an agreement for the new deal here. He noted, though, that the debate in the group on the transparency issues was "very intense" and that there were still conversations going on about specific elements.

But asked about fate of Kyoto, which looks like the biggest sticking point right now, Figueirado responded, "That's a good question."