Blue Marble - December 2011

D'oh, Canada: Northern Neighbors Ditch Kyoto

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:28 PM EST

While I was en route home from the Durban climate conference, the members of the Canadian delegation returned home and promptly announced that they were ditching the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto, said environment minister Peter Kent, "does not represent a way forward for Canada."

This isn't exactly new news; the Canadians, along with the Japanese and Russians, has been threatening to pull out since last year. They're the main reason why it was so hard to get an agreement in Durban on a second commitment period for Kyoto, the first phase of which is set to end in 2012. The only reason it was extended was because the European Union, the least-developed countries, and the small island states insisted that the only existing international, legally binding climate treaty be preserved. In the end though, negotiators didn't even decide whether it would be extended until 2017 or 2020, leaving that question to be answered next year.

Canada's argument, is that it shouldn't have to be bound to emissions-cutting pledges when other nations like the US and China still aren't. Its delegates say they'll sign on to whatever new pact emerges from the nebulous legal pathway outlined in Durban, but that they don't want to be bound by last decade's climate deal. That agreement was made in 1997 and doesn't reflect today's situation, they argue.

But Canada has another major reason to get out of Kyoto: it hasn't met the commitments it made last time and would owe as much as $13.6 billion in penalties if it signed on again. Canada committed to cutting emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by next year under Kyoto, but instead its emissions increased by 35 percent.

Other world leaders are, understandably, not happy that Canada has officially rejected Kyoto. But the situation raises some crucial questions for whatever climate deal comes next. A deal is meaningless if countries like Canada continue doing what they were doing anyway. And it's meaningless if countries can back out rather than face penalties. This provides an object lesson in what shouldn't happen when (if?) countries finally approve a new climate pact.

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Greenland Lurching Higher As Ice Melts

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:26 PM EST

Surface-melt days in 2011 compared to 1979-2010 average: orange=fewer days; blue=fewer days; white=no difference from average, or twoo small to detect. : Image and caption courtesy NOAA’s Climate.gov Website.Surface-melt days in 2011 compared to the average number of melt days between 1979 and 2010: orange=more days; blue=fewer days; white=no difference from average, or too small to detect. Image and caption courtesy NOAA’s Climate.gov Website.Southern Greenland saw an accelerated loss of ice amounting to a staggering 100 billion tons in 2010. As the weight of all that ice lifted, large portions of the island’s bedrock also rose a quarter of an inch or more higher.

That's the finding of the Greenland GPS Network, a string of nearly 50 GPS stations on the Greenland coast designed to measure the bedrock's response to accelerating loss of ice above.

Some GPS stations around Greenland routinely detect uplift of 0.59 inches/15 mm or more during the melt portion of the year. But the extremely warm temperatures of 2010 triggered a melting spike that lifted the bedrock as much as 0.79 inches/20 mm higher than usual in places.

Up to a point, this rebound might prove a useful counterpoint to sea-level rise.

Where Have All the Fish Gone?

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Fans of science and radio rejoice: The Field Trip is a new podcast series dedicated to bringing you your science fix in smart and entertaining little audio packages, each one the perfect length for a commute, treadmill session, or getting-ready-for-work time. 

The Field Trip crew has graciously allowed us to share their second episode with Mother Jones readers. The topic: fish. "To discover why so many of them seem to be disappearing from the world's seas," writes the crew, "we talk with Captain Mike Hudson, a commercial salmon fisherman, and Dr. Luiz Rocha at the California Academy of Sciences." Have a listen. (And once you're done with that, listen to the first episode here. The topic of that one is Mars, and you won't want to miss the explanation of why showering in space is really very dangerous.)

Play

 Front page image: US Fish and Wildlife Service—Northeast Region/Flickr

Can a Company Own Your Genes?

| Tue Dec. 13, 2011 7:00 AM EST
This DNA sequence can be found at the Science Museum in London.

The human genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are pretty notorious. A woman carrying a harmful mutation in either of these two genes is five times more likely to develop breast cancer in her lifetime, up from a 12 percent likelihood in the general population to about 60 percent. Taken together, mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 represent the single largest known hereditary source of breast cancer today. But so far, their notoriety has been limited to two usually disparate communities: scientists and patent lawyers.

That's because BRCA1 and BRCA2 are essentially "owned" by a private company, Myriad Genetics, and are at the center of a two-year legal battle over whether human genes can be patented in the first place. Though always surrounded by controversy, gene patents are not uncommon; more than a quarter of human genes currently have patent-holders in universities and biotech companies across the US. But last Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finally petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on whether this is a legal practice at all.

5 Anti-Environment Policies Republicans Don't Want You To Notice

| Mon Dec. 12, 2011 5:50 PM EST

UPDATE: Since I first wrote this piece, numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the list have been excised from the Interior Appropriations bill, along with riders that would have prohibited the EPA from regulating water pollution on logging roads and circumvented review of grazing permit. However, a few important riders remain, including one that would block new lightbulb efficiency standards and another that would fast-track oil drilling in Alaska.

On the other hand, Republicans have dug in their heels with regards to Keystone XL (#1), with House Speaker John Boehner insisting that it will remain in the final version of the payroll tax bill. (In fact, Republicans now seem to be trying to make Keystone into a campaign issue.) The rider that would undermine boiler regulations (#3) is still in the House version of the bill, but not the Senate's, which was passed Saturday—this one probably won't make it into law.

ORIGINAL POST: It's no secret that many Republicans aren't big fans of the EPA. But that hasn't stopped the GOP from being secretive about what exactly they're planning to do to scrap environmental regulations. Instead of putting anti-environment policies up for debate as stand-alone bills, they're trying to bypass scrutiny by sticking them into other pieces of legislation—like appropriations bills—that have to pass to keep key services or pet programs running. These provisions, called riders, are usually hard to find and often even harder to understand; that's basically the point. Fortunately, the Natural Resources Defense Council has been keeping track of the long list of policies that have been introduced into 2012 appropriations legislation thus far. We've put together an abbreviated guide to the most egregious attacks on environmental regulation that Republicans are trying to sneak through Congress by the end of the fiscal year.

  1. Rushing a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline: This one's been getting a lot of attention from environmental groups like the NRDC and the mainstream media alike, and for good reason: Representative Lee Terry's (R-Neb.) proposal to attach the Keystone decision to the bill to extend the payroll tax holiday would take decision-making power away from the State Department and give it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—never mind that FERC doesn't have experience evaluating pipeline safety. Even worse, FERC would have to make a decision within 30 days of receiving an application, making a real review of the pipeline's potential impacts basically impossible.

  2. Greenwashing coal ash: You might be surprised to learn that coal ash isn't already classified as a hazardous waste—something that the Obama administration's been considering changing after a major coal ash spill two years ago in Tennessee. A rider in the 2012 Interior-Environment  Appropriations bill, though, would shut down the evaluation process itself by prohibiting the EPA from classifying waste produced by any fossil fuel combustion as hazardous—a proposal supported by industry groups and representatives of coal-producing states that claim a hazardous designation would prevent them from recycling the ash into products like concrete.

  3. Delaying clean air: Another rider Republicans are proposing to attach to the payroll tax bill would delay the implementation of new EPA standards for the highest-emitting commercial and industrial boilers and waste incinerators, which spew mercury, lead, dioxin, and other nasty toxins into the air—even though the EPA estimates (PDF) the updated standards would prevent 8,100 deaths each year. Similarly, a rider in the Interior appropriations bill would scrap recently updated standards for cement kiln emissions, which also include toxins like mercury and fine particulate matter. 

  4. Slowing action on climate change: Section 431 of the Interior appopriations bill is aimed at undermining the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and would basically force the EPA to twiddle its thumbs for at least another year by barring it from issuing or implementing any carbon regulations. Republicans are framing this as a temporary measure while the economy recovers, in keeping with their insistence that government regulation kills jobs (even though evidence shows that regulations have a negligible effect on jobs and might even create them). But the GOP has allied with industry in opposing regulation of carbon emissions from the start, and environmental groups are concerned that Republicans' real goal is to delay regulation until they have enough power to kill it altogether. And in any case, it's clear that there's no time to waste when it comes to climate change.

  5. Killing clean cars: Back in July, the White House hashed out a deal with top American automakers to nearly double average fuel economy (to an ambitious 54.5 mpg) by 2025. But Section 453 of the Interior bill would basically bar the government from helping automakers meet that goal or otherwise doing anything to encourage fuel efficiency. Why block a deal that's already been worked out? Again, it's part of the overall message that regulations kill jobs. As Think Progress pointed out, Mitt Romney recently said he thinks the EPA should back off from regulating vehicle emissions, and that the agency is being used to "hold down and crush" the private sector.

These are just a few of dozens of the anti-environmental provisions Republicans are looking to push through quickly and quietly. Sure, most of them won't get through the Democrat-controlled Senate, and President Obama has clearly stated that he will reject any attempts to attach "extraneous issues" to legislation.  Still, it's not impossible to imagine that even staunch environmental defenders would let the occasional provision slide to make a deal—like when Nancy Pelosi caved on the anti-choice Stupak amendment to the health care reform bill in order to get it through the House. But the real reason to pay attention to these riders is that they provide clues as to what Republicans might try to do if they had enough power. Turns out it's some scary stuff.

Japan Admits Tsunami Funds Used to Defend Whaling Fleet

| Mon Dec. 12, 2011 3:49 PM EST
Minke whales loaded aboard the Japanese whaling factory ship, Nisshin Maru, in the Southern Ocean.

Japan has admitted that some of its disaster funds earmarked for earthquake and tsunami relief will instead go to boost security for its so-called "scientific" whale hunts. The Japan Times reports:

It was a comparatively minor entry in the annual, ritualized battle between pro- and anti-whalers. Japan's whaling fleet pulled out of Shimonoseki port near Nagasaki earlier this week on its way to another controversial four-month Antarctic cull. In the fine print of the 2011 departure, however, was a PR land mine that would detonate and send ripples across the world. Traveling with the whalers was what the Japanese media called "beefed-up security," a euphemism for a party of coast guard officers who would ride shotgun in the converted harpoon ship Shonan Maru 2, making sure the fleet achieved its target catch. That vessel gained some notoriety last year when it plowed through the Ady Gil ocean-going speedboat, cutting it in half.

Japan Fisheries Agency officials admitted that about  ¥2.28 billion (US$29 million) would be taken from a ¥500 billion (US$6.4 billion) portion of disaster funds earmarked for fisheries-related spending, approved by Japan's parliament last month.

These monies apparently went to equip the Shonan Maru 2 with unspecified security equipment designed to win the battle against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Ady Gil. This even though 95 percent of Japanese admit to rarely or never eating whale meat and presumably don't give a damn whether whaling continues.

Japan's rationale: That safer hunts will help whaling towns recover from earthquake and tsunami damage.

My question: $29 million for a party of coast guard officers? What else did they send out with the whalers? Torpedoes?

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A Durban Deal

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 11:45 PM EST
European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard and Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua meet outside the plenary hall earlier in the week.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, climate negotiators pulled out an agreement on climate change after two days of last-ditch efforts. The decision puts world leaders on a path to a negotiating a legal agreement beginning in 2015 and managed to avoid a total disaster, but still leaves a number of questions open.

In some ways, the agreement is better than many had expected heading into Durban. The US, China, India and a few other countries had been reluctant to commit to a timeline for a legal agreement, while the European Union and small island nations were insistent that one be laid out. Over the course of two days, various versions of an agreement outlining a process to create a Protocol, legal framework, or a "legal outcome" were debated furiously among delegates. India emerged as the strongest critic, arguing that as a developing country it should not be held to the same standard as industrialized nations. But at around 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, there was a breakthrough.

Earlier, South African Minister and COP president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane pleaded with the parties not to leave Durban with nothing completed. "I think we all realize they are not perfect, but we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good and the possible," she said.

In the end, it came down to a single turn of phrase: changing "legal outcome" in the earlier draft to "an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties." That was enough to win the consent of Indian negotiator Jayanthi Natarajan, who earlier had worried that her country was "being made the scapegoats" of the meeting for not consenting to the agreement. But she could not, she said, "sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people and many other people in the developing world" by agreeing to something that could limit their ability to grow their economy.

Her impassioned speech, however, was followed by equally moving remarks from Karl Hood, the negotiator from Grenada and representative for the Alliance of Small Island States, who are the most immediately imperiled by climate change. "This little island is where I get my dignity from," said Hood. "I shouldn't be transported somewhere else by the whims and fancy of others who want to develop."

Of course, the change still leaves the agreement, termed the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action," somewhat vague. Even if negotiations on a new legal agreement are set to begin under in 2015, it's not clear when they'd conclude. It also reaffirms the goal of holding global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), notes with "grave concern" that the pledges listed won't meet that goal, and launches a "work plan" to consider improving those targets. But countries are still continuing pledges that put the world on a path toward 4 degrees C warming (7 degrees F).

While it's notable that the US, China, and India agreed to creating a legal pathway, there was still concern from developing countries that too much burden had been shifted to them. China expressed concern that the developed nations were not doing enough. "It is not what is said by countries it is what is done by countries, and many are not realizing their commitments," said Xie Zhenhua, China's lead negotiators. "We've been talking about this for 20 years, they're still not being acted upon … We want to see your real actions."

Nor was there a clear decision on the existing Kyoto Protocol, the first commitment period of the treaty ends in Dec. 2012. The text calls for an extension until either 2017 or 2020, but leaves a decision on the date for next year. And while it moves the creation of a Green Climate Fund to help poor nations both cut emissions and adapt to climate change forward, it does not include any decisions about how to put money in the fund. Several countries, including Russia and Nicaragua, lodged complaints about the last-minute decisions and that their concerns with the text had not been addressed.

"Over the past 17 years, they've kicked the big issues down the road," said Samantha Smith, leader of the global climate and energy initiative at the World Wildlife Fund International. "The hardest issues are still on the table."

The Durban Scramble Is On

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 6:27 PM EST
A demonstrator with Oxfam outside of the COP17 proceedings on Friday.

A decision on a climate agreement was uncertain late Friday night in Durban, as ministers rejected the proposed text from the South African leaders of the meeting.

Draft text was made public at around 6 p.m. on Friday night, Durban time. But the draft was too weak for many, including the European Union, small island nations, and the least developed countries. Its call for a path forward was rather vague, with a stated goal of launching "a process in order to develop a legal framework" at some unspecified point "after 2020." The text also stated that a "subsidiary body" would be created at next year's meeting to develop that framework.

The draft was just over one page in length, but it evoked a strong response from countries that have pushed for a legally binding deal as soon as possible. The EU had been pushing for a 2015 due date for a legal agreement that would cover all countries. Opponents of the draft called out the US, China, India and Brazil for standing in the way of action.

South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the president of the COP, went back to the drawing board for new text, and the official meeting was adjourned. But ministers convened for another "indaba"—a Zulu word for meeting of high-level officials—at midnight. According to the UNFCCC, the official meetings will reconvene Saturday morning.

Right now, though, no one knows what will happen. It's not clear whether ministers will agree on the new draft,or what that draft will even look like. Observers are making all kinds of guesses about when and how this thing will wrap up. I'm going to sleep for a bit, but will be back with an update at some point tomorrow.

Week's Image: Lunar Eclipse

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 4:52 PM EST

Total lunar eclipse.: Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim | Facebook, via Wikimedia Commons.Total lunar eclipse.: Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim | Facebook, via Wikimedia Commons.

The second total lunar eclipse of the year will be visible tonight, 10 December. Here's the map showing you where to look when. The eclipse will be visible in most of the populated world. Sorry, South America, west Africa, and Antarctica, not for you.

Eclipse visibility map.: Credit: Fred Espenak | NASA GSFC via Wikimedia Commons.Eclipse visibility map. Credit: Fred Espenak | NASA GSFC, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Sinking Feeling: More Bad News for Pacific Island Nations

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 3:55 PM EST

Kiribati: lidian/ShutterstockKiribati lidian/Shutterstock

In climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, the most urgent calls for action have come from the world's small island nations. For many of those nations, the negotiations aren't about some far-off, abstract problem. It's something they're already living with, as a new Australian research project on the dramatic climate shifts underway for 15 Pacific nations reaffirmed this week.

Basically, the report finds that the closer one lives to the equator, the warmer it's going to get. And even in the best-case scenario, oceans will rise up to 12 inches by 2100. It confirms what Pacific islanders have long feared: Home is getting windier, saltier, wetter, hotter and, well, submerged in water.

No wonder the Pacific islanders have banded together in the climate talks. Many negotiate together as the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS. Representatives of those nations have demanded immediate action in Durban, rather than further delay, as some parties have suggested. The group also issued a joint statement with the European Union and the least-developed countries calling for a legally binding agreement. "We have all that it takes to begin the work right now," said Karl Hood, the chairman of AOSIS and minister for foreign affairs in Granada. "We believe that waiting is a disaster."

"Where we live, some say it's a paradise," Hood continued. "It's a paradise when you come to visit. But we live there. We don't leave after a week and go back home. This is our lives."

Taito Nakalevu, a climate change adaptation officer with the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, has also been in Durban for the meeting and discussed this latest report. "The soil, the water, is slowly being affected," he said. "This is our livelihood." He noted a single flood in his homeland of Fiji in 2009 that did $162 million in damage in just one town, a burden for the country. "The funds that need to be used for development are being used for adaptation," he said. "We cannot cope with that."

The Climate Desk's James West also spoke with one member of the Australian research team via Skype in Sydney—'scuse the poor connection, it's a long way!—to take the temperature on the report.