Blue Marble - December 2010

Senate Republicans to World: We're Not Paying for Climate

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 8:17 PM EST

The Senate's leading climate change denier, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), isn't making an appearance in Cancun this year. He dropped in for a short visit to Copenhagen last year, where his presence mostly served to confuse and disturb reporters from other countries. This year he decided to make a video presentation at a side event in Cancun organized by Americans for Prosperity, an astroturf group funded in part by fossil fuel interests, rather than show up. But he and three other Republican Senators on Thursday reminded the world that they intend to block funding for climate-related issues.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Inhofe joined John Barrasso (Wy), David Vitter (La.), and George Voinovich (Ohio) in requesting that the US stop "wasting" money on programs to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes. In Copenhagen, the leaders of developed countries, including the US, agreed to provide $10 billion a year for projects for the next three years, and $100 billion a year by 2020. The details of that funding are among the issues under negotiation in Cancun right now.

"We remain opposed to the US commitment to full implementation of the Copenhagen Accord, which will transfer billions of US taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change," wrote the senators. "We do not believe that billions of US taxpayer dollars should be transferred to developing countries through unaccountable multilateral or bilateral channels for adaptation, deforestation and other international climate finance programs."

The senators note that that their main concern is deficit spending. But most of them also believe that climate change is a giant hoax anyway (save Voinovich, who has sponsored legislation on the issue in the past). They also claim in the letter that findings about climate change reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were "exaggerated or simply not true," which is, of course, a gross overstatement of a minor error in one report about glaciers that didn't actually change the fact that the glaciers are still melting, the earth is still getting hotter, and there are thousands of pieces of scientific research that validate that finding.

But they certainly hit a nerve in the letter. Other countries are growing increasingly worried that the US will not follow through on its commitment to provide money for a climate fund. How to create the fund is a big part of the negotiations here. The US budgeted $1.3 billion for climate financing for 2010, and the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion for 2011 (though that has not been approved). But there's concern that, with Republicans in charge of the House, getting the US to commit more money for climate will be impossible. The senators' letter stands as a reminder that, if they have anything to say about it, the US certainly won't.

Republicans don't control the Senate right now of course, but they can effectively block aid. And they do control the House, where the vast majority of GOP members also dispute that the planet is warming--which means they could cause problems in terms of the US delivering the funds is has promised.

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Some Perspective on Negotiations

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:20 PM EST

The past decade has been the warmest on record, and 2010 is on pace to finish as one of the three warmest years since records began in 1850, the World Meteorological Organization said Thursday.

The year's not over, but the planet is on pace to exceed the previous two warmest periods from January to October recorded, which occurred in 1998 and 2005. The temperature for this year is about 0.55 Celsius (0.99 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1961 to 1990 average, the WMO said, though the final figures for 2010 will not be determined until November and December data are analyzed in early 2011.

Surface air temperatures over land were "above normal" for most areas of the world. The figures represent the global average; of course, regions of the world are experiencing that differently, the WMO notes:

Recent warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic; the Saharan/Arabian, East African, Central Asian and Greenland/Arctic Canada sub-regions have all had 2001-10 temperatures 1.2 to 1.4°C above the long-term average, and 0.7°C to 0.9°C warmer than any previous decade.

The latest figures come as world leaders are negotiating plans to deal with climate change—both how to cut planet-warming emissions and how to plan for the changes we're already seeing. Leaders agreed at last year's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Summit to a goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But as the WMO's latest numbers affirm, changes are already taking place. Recent studies have indicated that, without major emissions cuts, the world could see an average of 4 degree Celsius increase as soon as the 2060s.

The impacts of that warming are already becoming clear. In the first nine months of 2010, 21,000 people around the world died as a result of extreme climate-related events like major storms, heat waves, and flooding. That's more than double the number in 2009, according to a report compiled by Oxfam International, a humanitarian group. The report points to fires in Russia, record summer heat waves around the world, and massive flooding in Pakistan. In total, there were 725 extreme weather events. A few they list: The highest temperature on record in Asia was reached in Pakistan this year—53.7 degrees Celsius, or 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Flooding in China affected 140 million people, while drought affected 51 million. And floods in Pakistan affected 20 percent of the country, killing 2,000 and causing an estimated $9.7 billion in damage, the group said.

Oxfam includes the caveat that it's difficult to attribute individual weather events to climate change—but notes that scientists predict that extreme weather events "will become more frequent and severe" due to climate change. But the group points to the events, and today's update from the WMO, as evidence of the need for countries gathered in Cancun to commit to cutting emissions, and investing in adaptation strategies to help countries prepare for impacts like extreme weather.

"These findings support what millions of poor people around the world on the frontline of climate change already know: that the climate is changing," said Oxfam policy adviser Barry Coates.

A Map of Crowded Cows

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 6:53 PM EST

In "Big Meat vs. Michael Pollan," reporter Wes Enzinna profiles the Master's in Beef Advocacy program, an industry-funded crash course on how to bolster the reputations of cattle farmers and meat producers in a time when livestock prices are falling and beef consumption is the lowest it's been since 1961.

But rather than focusing so much on the PR battle, cattle farmers might woo consumers by downsizing. Much of the bad rap associated with the meat industry relates to the transformation of the small family farms into overcrowded feedlots managed by agribusiness monopolies—at least, according to a new project by Food and Water Watch, called "Factory Farm Nation."

"For several decades, agricultural policy in the U.S. has been based on this 'get big or get out' approach, which is incompatible with a sustainable food system for consumers and producers," says the project's website. Along with an extensive report on why this is true, Food and Water Watch also unveiled an interactive "Factory Farm Map," which shows the population density of pigs, cows, and chickens in each state. Both fun to play with and aesthetically eye-popping, the tool seeks to shed light on how "family farms are being replaced by factory farms, and these facilities are overwhelming some regions of the country."

Factory Farm MapFactory Farm Map: From Food and Water Watch

Take California: The map's dairy filter reveals that huge swaths of the state contain "extreme density levels" of dairy cows. Switch to the hog filter, and you'll notice how almost the entire state of Iowa is crowded with pigs, and a surprising number of meat plants too. The map allows you to click on regions within each state, so you can learn, for instance, that the number of animals in Buena Vista County, Iowa nearly doubled from 2002 to 2007. Also interesting to note: Factory farms tend to be clustered around meat packers (shown by blue dots on the map), which reflects the control these increasingly consolidated slaughterhouses exert over farmers. Just four firms processed more than four out of five beef cattle in 2007, according to the report.

Frontline: Extinction v. Climate

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 6:02 PM EST

There's a new frontline on the battlefield between the two baddest armies of environmental change—global warming and biodiversity loss. The question is whether or not to relocate endangered species to ecosystems they've never inhabited in order to save them from the real or predicted loss of their natural ecosystems from climate change.

 RARE from Joel Sartore on Vimeo.

 

The potential for problems is scary. There's a term for what happens when species set up house in the wrong ecosystem: biological invasion. One of the primary causes of the current extinction crisis around the world is biological invasion. An exotic species comes in and wipe out a native species. I wrote about this in Listen to the Lionfish in MoJo a couple of years back. 

Plaster cast of a dried DoDo bird at the Brighton Museum. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History owns the only remaining Dodo tissue samples. Photo by Ed Schipul, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Plaster cast of a dried DoDo bird at the Brighton Museum. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History owns the only remaining Dodo tissue samples. Photo by Ed Schipul, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Now a new paper in Ecological Applications by Ben Minteer and James Collins of Arizona State University assesses the pros and cons of managed relocation:

A conservation strategy involving the translocation of species to novel ecosystems in anticipation of range shifts forced by climate change, managed relocation (MR) has divided many ecologists and conservationists, mostly because of concerns about the potential invasion risk of the relocated species in their new environments.

The authors cite an important 2004 paper in Nature, Extinction risk from climate change, which predicts up to 35 percent of Earth's species could be en route to extinction as a result of climate change. Nevertheless, argue Minteer and Collins, the ways we've fought extinction in the past won't help  species teetering on the edge in a rapidly warming climate.

[A]s the plight of the polar bear illustrates, climate change is forcing us to rethink what it means to save a species in the 21st century. If climate change continues unabated and as rapidly as a few models predict, saving at least some species will require solutions more radical than creating parks and shielding endangered species from bullets, bulldozers, and oil spills: It will require moving them.

Polar bear. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Polar bear. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Some key questions raised by Minteer and Collins:

  • Is relocation of threatened species justifiable if species can't adapt quickly enough to local changing environmental conditions, or if dispersing to higher latitudes and altitudes on their own is impossible?
  • Would "assisted colonization" help some species cross barriers they can't or won't cross—highways or cities, for instance?
  • What about the genetic ramifications of relocations—fears of hybridization and introgression, and of messing with the genetics of both introduced and native species?
  • What about the genetic outcomes of moving species great distances, as in intercontinental translocations?
  • What about the high costs and uncertain success rate of managed relocations, would it divert funds from more traditional conservation approaches?

Quino checkerspot butterfly. Photo courtesy the US Fish & Wildlife Service.Quino checkerspot butterfly. Photo courtesy the US Fish & Wildlife Service.Whether we've though about these issues hard enough or not is becoming moot since relocations are already happening:

  • The "Torreya Guardians" recently planted the Florida conifer Torreya taxifolia in the unfamiliar soil of North Carolina.
  • Forest scientists in British Columbia are moving more than a dozen species of tree seedlings to locations beyond their native range.
  • British ecologists introduced two butterfly species in northern England.
  • Conservationists in southern California  are considering relocating the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly, whose natural dispersal pathways are blocked by greater Los Angeles. 

In the end, argue the authors, the "metabolism of conservation must accelerate if we want to keep up with changes that are outpacing traditional ways of managing species and ecosystems." 

The paper's open access and worth a read:

  • Minteer, Ben A., and James P. Collins. 2010. Move it or lose it? The ecological ethics of relocating species under climate change. Ecological Applications 20:1801–1804. DOI:10.1890/10-0318.1.

The only known photograph of an Alaotra Grebe, confirmed extinct this year. Photo by Paul Thompson, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.The only known photograph of an Alaotra Grebe, confirmed extinct this year. Photo by Paul Thompson, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Will the US Go All or Nothing in Cancun?

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 6:00 AM EST

In Copenhagen a year ago, inking an accord came down to word choice, essentially. The US wanted China to commit to an international program by which countries would monitor one another's progress on emission reduction commitments. In the end, the countries agreed on a three-word phrase for this transparency plan: "international consultation and analysis."

But now in Cancun, what exactly that phrase means is again the subject of much contention. The United States negotiators have said that they want a package here that defines those terms, which they say is crucial to ensuring that the pledges to cut emissions made in Copenhagen are actually met —and that they don't want to move other pieces of a climate package unless there's agreement on the transparency front.

This is creating some tension early in the Cancun talks, as a number of countries would like to see progress on other major components of an accord  here—things like setting up a technology transfer program, creating a global climate fund to finance adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, and establishing a deforestation initiative. All of those are components of a climate deal that observers and delegates agree can and should be advanced substantially in the Cancun talks. Other nations don't want to see those portions held up by ongoing disputes over the transparency issue.

US negotiator Jonathan Pershing emphasized in remarks to reporters on Tuesday that the US position believes Cancun should produce a "balanced package." "There is no reason we cannot get full, robust, operational decisions in all these area," he said.

But he affirmed the US's desire to move everything at once: "The package is not disentangled, the package is collective. We will not pull out pieces separately and say the other pieces can wait."

This echoes comments that US climate envoy Todd Stern made to foreign press in Washington ahead of the summit. "I actually think we're either going to see progress across the range of issues or we're not going to see much progress," Stern said. The US argues that all the components of the package need to move forward together, or else nothing is going to move. The transparency issue is key to ensuring that mitigation targets are actually met, the US negotiators argue.

"We're not going to race forward on three issues and take a first step on other important ones," he continued. "We're going to have to sort of get them all moving kind of at a similar pace."

Observers—particularly those working with developing countries—are nervous about this kind of all-or-nothing approach. They're worried that this will create a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, in which developing nations refuse to consent on transparency measures until the US signals it will move forward on a fund that will help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change, and the US in turn would hold up work on the fund because of its concerns. Sol Oyuela, senior adviser on climate change and poverty at Christian Aid, an international religious group focusing on development issues, acknowledged that developing countries need to do better on transparency, but expressed concerns about the US position. "I think everyone acknowledges it's a very dangerous tactic and we should avoid going there," said Oyuela.

At least some of the tough talk can be chalked up to the typical posturing in the first days of negotiations, as countries lay out their positions. And the US has actually dialed back its criticism of China in the past weeks, after Stern accused the country of failing to meet its Copenhagen commitments in a speech in October. There's also been some notable progress, as India recently laid out a proposal for transparency, one that outlines a "facilitative process for transparency and accountability" but does not attach penalties if countries fail to meet goals. Their proposal would also only include the biggest emitters. The European Union has backed the language. India's delegation has said it expects China to support the proposal, though it's not yet clear that they will. It's also not clear if the US will back India's proposal. Whether all parties can agree to details on this issue in the next two weeks will be an essential element of the negotiations.

"What we've heard the past couple days is better than what we heard in the previous three months, but it has to stay that way," said Lou Leonard, managing director of the climate change program at the World Wildlife Fund. "This isn't the time for rhetoric, it's the time for negotiation."

Christiana Figuera, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, expressed optimism that countries could move forward with all portions of a deal. "Governments can deliver a balanced package if they engage in the flexibility of compromise and listen to each others' needs," she said. "Nobody can afford an immovable position."

But she also acknowledged that there is much to be hammered out over the next ten days. "Clearly we are here for two weeks because it's going to take two weeks."

Sea Shepherd: "Don't Be Rude"

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 7:32 PM EST

Sea Shepherd loves the limelight. Its daily operations are fodder for Animal Planet's "Whale Wars" and it just acquired a flashy new boat, the Gojira, named after the Tokyo-stomping monster Godzilla. Most recently, Sea Shepherd has been seen shadowing dolphin fishermen in the Japanese town of Taiji (made infamous by the documentary The Cove). Sea Shepherd members have been living in the small town (pop. 3,500) for some time and file daily reports on the Cove Guardians blog.

Sea Shepherd's attitude toward self-promotion took a step backward this week when Japan's Fuji TV network followed its activists around for a day. Sea Shepherd's Scott West tells the a Fuji TV reporter, "Don't be rude" and "Please leave" (8:49) in the video below after he gets tired of the relentless press presence. JapanProbe summarizes the reporter-West interaction well: "The reporter responds by asking why its wrong for him to film Sea Shepherd members, when West apparently thinks it is okay for Sea Shepherd to follow around Japanese fishermen and film them without permission. Instead of answering that question, West declares that he won’t speak to them anymore." It's a bit rich for West to tell the Japanese reporter not to "be rude" when West himself calls Taiji fishermen "greedy molesters" on the Cove Guardian blog on a daily basis. 

Despite the rift between Japanese media and Sea Shepherd, there was one nice moment in the video when a Japanese crew member advises West's vegetarian daughter that the instant ramen she was about to purchase contains fish.


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Cancun: Politics vs. Science

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 4:49 PM EST

There are quite a few numbers tossed around at climate negotiations. Should world leaders agree to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius in the next decade, or 1.5? How many gigatons of carbon can the world cut in ten years? Should they shoot for reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, or can the world deal with 450 parts per million? The numbers can be daunting, and discussions of them can get, well, heated. But they often avoid the reality that we're already on the path to dangerous warming, and the actions countries have put forward so far aren't nearly strong enough to avert dangerous warming.

A set of papers from the United Kingdom's Royal Society takes a look at the implications of the current path in a new set of reports. If action isn't taken, they conclude, the world is likely to warm 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 50 years. Despite the political goal of 2 degrees drafted in Copenhagen last year, the continued rise in emissions and the delay of a legally binding deal, the researchers conclude, means the world is going to exceed that goal.

The reports offer a stark contrast to the political negotiations here in Cancun. "[T]here is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 C," write Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Alice Bows of the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester in one of the key papers. And new findings about the impacts of a 2-degree rise indicated that the goal"now more appropriately represents the threshold between 'dangerous' and 'extremely dangerous’ climate change."

Another paper, from scientists at the UK's Met Office Hadley Centre and the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Exeter predicts that the world is likely to reach a 4 degree temperature rise in the 2070s. But if the climatic reactions are stronger than scientists currently expect, the world could hit that mark in the 2060s, they conclude.

The Copenhagen Accord pledged to "hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius." But not only are the pledges to cut emissions that countries have offered so far not legally binding, they also fall far short of meeting that goal. Even if countries followed through on their pledges, they'd only be 60 percent of the way toward meeting that goal.

Thus, scientists need to look more closely at how the climate system will react to that level of increase, and the implications it will have around the world, the Royal Society package recommends. Leaders will also need to start preparing for and reacting to warming that exceeds their stated goal.

"Everyone is realizing that the Copenhagen pledge is not enough," said Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. But here in Cancun, leaders are still focused on hashing out how to meet last year's goals—or if they will ever formalize even those weak commitments in a new, legally binding treaty.

"There is no sense of that urgency here in this conference, or not anywhere near enough," said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a group formed to spur world leaders to keep greenhouse gas concentrations under that parts-per-million mark. "It appears too difficult for our leaders and negotiators to understand the science."

"Political reality is important, it's not to be underestimated," he continued. "But it's nowhere near as difficult to deal with as the reality of chemistry and physics."

Japan Says "Sayonara" to Kyoto Protocol

| Wed Dec. 1, 2010 6:00 AM EST

A ritual at the COP meetings is the naming of the Fossil of the Day, a dubious recognition that the Climate Action Network International bestows upon the country who did the most to gum up negotiations on any given day of the summit. Tuesday's award went to Japan, which has drawn plenty of attention this week for its statement that the country would not accept a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

Why's that matter? Well, short of the irony that Japan is rejecting the continuation of an accord named for one of its own cities, the continuation of the protocol has grown ever more integral to negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol, the world's first climate pact, is set to expire at the end of 2012. The negotiations over the past years have been focused on creating a successor to that accord. But discussions under the Kyoto Protocol have also continued in these meetings, as countries work out how to build upon and continue the pledges they first adopted back in 1997. Now that a new, legally binding agreement is becoming less certain (for now at least), there is increasing attention being paid to whether the parties that signed that accord will start a second commitment period with new promises to cutting planet-warming emissions. That would ensure that there is still a legally binding, global deal in place should world leaders fail to draft a new one.

But Japan is saying no way to an extension of the pact, which omits the biggest historical emitter, the US, because it was never ratified. It also does not include major emerging emitters like China. Doing so would be "meaningless and inappropriate," Japanese vice minister for global environmental affairs Hideki Minamikawa said at a news conference last week. The country has reaffirmed its position this week that it will under no conditions agree to a second commitment period under Kyoto.

Japan's not alone. Russia and Canada have also expressed misgivings about continuing Kyoto, which they supported then but say is outdated at this point. Japan's negotiating team has made it clear in Cancun that they think the focus should be on a new deal that includes everyone, not extending the old one. A new agreement on Kyoto that excludes the US and China "will not lead to a fair and effective global emission reduction," the country's negotiating team has said. And Japan blames the US for stalling the process of forging a new pact, in addition to being the only developed nation not included under Kyoto. "If everyone else relies on US actions, then we cannot go anywhere," Kuni Shimada, a special adviser and the former lead negotiator for the country, told Bloomberg

Japan's reticence could create a significant impasse here. Forty countries are already committed to reductions under Kyoto; the least-developed countries fear that allowing it to expire would mean that there would be no binding commitment pushing countries to fulfill those pledges once it expires. Yet Kyoto only covers 27 percent of all global emissions—which is, of course, the major reason a new pact is necessary.

Japan's environmental organizations expressed concern about the country's position. "Japanese people are proud of the Kyoto Protocol and the role we played in its creation, and we expect our government to be a climate leader," said Mayuko Yanai of Friends of the Earth Japan. "That my government is now trying to destroy this treaty that bears a Japanese name is a disgrace."