Blue Marble

Double Trouble: China and the U.S. Gang Up on the Environment

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 3:17 PM EST

bali-conference.jpgChina and the U.S. have been quite the bosom buddies lately, both on economic and environmental issues. But is it any wonder? As we discussed in our current feature article, "The Last Empire," China's booming economy is based on a high-consumption, capitalist, American model.

Just yesterday, the two countries concluded the annual conference between high-ranking Chinese and American economic and environmental officials, the Sino-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue, in which they discussed economic policies for upcoming years. According to government-run Chinese newspaper Xinhua, during the talks the two countries set up Chinese manufacturing and inspection regulations to prevent mishaps like the tainted pet food and toy recalls. Xinhua also reports that "China and the United States agreed to conduct extensive cooperation over a 10-year period to focus on technological innovation, adoption of clean technology and sustainable natural resources."

The promise to adopt clean technology seems like nothing more than a false gesture, considering both China and the U.S. refused mandatory emissions cuts of 20 to 40 percent by 2020 at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali this week. (Japan, Russia, and several other countries also rejected mandatory emissions limits.) Instead, the U.S. suggested emissions cuts could be "voluntary." While such a response is typical for the Bush administration, it could potentially derail the Bali agreement entirely and basically tell any nation, including fast-developing ones like China and India, to keep on polluting.

European Union representatives have said they won't attend next month's American-led climate conference in Hawaii if the U.S. does not sign up for mandatory cuts because it would essentially be "meaningless."

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Reality Check From Bali

| Thu Dec. 13, 2007 8:44 PM EST

This Washington Post article conveys in short and sweet style how serious the U.S.'s refusal in Bali to accept emissions caps is.

Europe: frustrated, vowing to boycott Bush's distracter tactic, the "major economies" meetings he's hosting on global warming. Brazil—home to the world's largest intact forest—threatening not to comply with rules that only apply to developing countries.

Most disturbing of all, Americans support carbon emissions caps because they're the only way of fending off catastrophic climate change.

As Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, put it, the targets don't come from "figures taken at random," she said. Rather, the 25 percent by 2020 "reports very specifically back to what the IPCC tells us."

Compare the sanity of that remark—we're doing what the best scientists tell us we have to—to the childish churlishness of this one, made by James L. Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, explaining why the U.S. refuses to do the right thing and accept the caps: "We will lead. The U.S. will lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow."

Despite Americans' political will, our government is standing in the way of the best documented solution for the greatest problem the world has ever faced.

Gold Mines Polluting Our Parks: What Woud Ron Paul Do?

| Thu Dec. 13, 2007 2:40 PM EST

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Gold mining has retained none of its glamour from prospector days of yore, and it is still one of the dirtiest businesses around: Mile-deep open pit mines continue to emit a staggering amount of pollutants—20 tons of waste and 13 pounds of toxic emissions for a single ring's worth of gold. And who, may I ask, is being held accountable for all this damage? Well, basically, you. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that national parks, such as Grand Canyon and Yosemite, are being left to clean up after nearby mines, costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year.

Mother Jones has been keeping tabs on the gold mining industry's waste for a while now. But this time, in light of the issues raised in the L.A. Times article, let's take a look at the problem from the perspective of presidential hopeful Ron Paul, who, it seems, has no particular use for the EPA or for any other big-government efforts to protect the environment:

Governments don't have a good reputation for doing a good job protecting the environment....You should be held responsible in a court of law and you should be able to be closed down if you're damaging your neighbor's property in any way whatsoever.

Can the World Sustain the Growth of China's Capitalism?

| Wed Dec. 12, 2007 8:20 PM EST

china1.2.jpgOver the past year, China's environmental devastation has quickly morphed from a future concern into an immediate crisis. The country's skyrocketing economic development, fueled by multinational corporations, has wreaked environmental havoc on the country (and the rest of us). It's now much easier for Americans to buy cheap cashmere sweaters and Ikea dining sets from China—"cheap" for consumers, at a big cost for Mother Earth.

For more on China's environmental demise and the effect it is having on the globe, see Mother Jones' January 2008 feature. And don't miss this revealing photo essay as well as various sidebars exploring Chinese citizen protests, deforestation, and other issues.

The country's environmental problems, in part, stem from governmental rule and lack of accurate information. Fortunately, international NGOs have been instrumental in gathering and disseminating trustworthy data for Chinese non-profits, and public awareness is growing on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, but it needs to grow faster. Chinese's per capita income is only 1/10 of Americans', which means if they ever reach our level of wealth and consumption, several Earths will be needed to provide resources.

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage on this subject at The Blue Marble. Here's a teaser. You won't believe which country Chinese president Hu Jintao said should be responsible for cutting the world's CO2 emissions. Take a guess in the comments.

Tibetan Ice Cores Missing A-Bomb Markers

| Wed Dec. 12, 2007 7:04 PM EST

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Ice cores drilled last year from the summit of a Himalayan ice field lack the distinctive radioactive signals that mark virtually every other ice core retrieved worldwide. That radioactivity originated as fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests during the 1950s and 1960s. These markers routinely provide researchers with benchmarks to gauge new ice accumulation. Scientists with Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center believe the missing signal means the Naimona'nyi ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago—foreshadowing serious water shortages in the future for more than 500 million people on the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to hamstring the Climate Change Conference in Bali, resisting emissions cuts. Doesn't this qualify as some sort of peace crime?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Arctic Waters Warm Alarmingly, Delaying Winter

| Wed Dec. 12, 2007 6:36 PM EST

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We're hearing about the record-breaking iceless summer of 2007 in the Arctic, worse even than it first seemed. Now we're learning that these ice-free waters have deprived the Arctic of much of its natural insulation, enabling sea surface temperatures to rise 5-degrees C above average in one place this year—a high never before observed, says Michael Steele, oceanographer with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory.

Superwarming surface waters affect how thick ice grows back in the winter, as well as its ability to withstand melting the next summer. Already this year the winter freeze-up in some areas is two months later than usual, boding poorly for next summer. The ocean warming might also be contributing to changes on land, including novel plant growth in the coastal Arctic tundra.

Steele is lead author of "Arctic Ocean surface warming trends over the past 100 years," accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union's Geophysical Research Letters.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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China's Bad Air Could Postpone Olympic Events

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 8:16 PM EST

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The International Olympic Committee is threatening to reschedule parts of the 2008 Beijing Games, set for next August, if China can't prove that its air is safe for athletes, reports the BBC. Affected would be competitions involving endurance, such as foot and bicycle races.

Chinese officials already have been working overtime to reduce air pollution in its capital, especially since the United Nations reported last October that levels were more than three times what's acceptable. The government has dismantled or relocated factories and removed high-polluting taxis and buses from roads. As a last ditch effort, China recently launched a campaign called "guard the blue sky" that involves cracking down on dusty construction sites and even outdoor kebab vendors.

For more on China's pollution disaster, and its efforts to tidy up before the Olympics, check out Jacques Leslie's cover story for our January/February issue, which has been posted here.


The Story of Stuff: Understanding Externalities

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 9:16 PM EST

Ever wondered about the real cost of that ridiculously cheap stuff we buy? I mean, how does it get it halfway around the world let alone designed, built, manufactured and then discarded for the pennies we pay? Well, the Story of Stuff tells us how, in a funny, fast, fact-filled film. Watch the YouTube teaser below, or check out the full 20-minute version.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Who's Most at Risk from Climate Change?

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 8:40 PM EST

The answer, by region: the eastern US in North America; China, Bangladesh and Myanmar in Asia; western Sahel and southwestern nations in Africa; Brazil in South America; Russia, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean nations, including France, Italy and Spain, in Europe. This according to a new study from Purdue University and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy that goes beyond the physical aspects of climate change—changes in temperature, sea-level, and precipitation—to examine socioeconomic side-effects worldwide. The study forecasts that the merger of climatic and socioeconomic variables will trigger lopsided responses.

"Patterns emerge that you wouldn't recognize from just looking at either climatic or socioeconomic conditions," [said Noah Diffenbaugh, lead author]. "For example, China has a relatively moderate expected climate change. However, when you combine that with the fact that it has the second largest economy in the world, a substantial poverty rate and a large population, it creates one of the largest combined exposures on the planet. We see similar effects in other parts of the world, including India and the United States, which also have relatively moderate expected climate change. So it's where the socioeconomic and climatic variables intersect that is the key."

The research will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Green Energy the Next Frontier

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 10:40 PM EST

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Great piece by Declan Butler in Nature on the new venture capitalism in Silicon Valley. Green energy, folks. California gold. Butler reports how the venture-capital industry in the US spent $2.6 billion on clean-energy technologies in the first three-quarters of this year. Up from $1.8 billion in 2006, and $533 million in 2005. Google joined the game last week, committing millions more to solar, wind and geothermal, seeking a technology patch to make renewables cheaper than coal. A few weeks earlier, Al Gore's London-based Generation Investment Management partnered with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park—the green-energy investors that nurtured Amazon, Google and Genentech—to fund global climate solutions.

For the fast-moving entrepreneurs of the [Silicon] [V]alley… the next frontier is the roughly US$6-trillion energy market, where the dinosaurs of power-generation utilities have traditionally invested a pittance in research and development. "Venture capital is exactly what we need to try new things outside the bounds of what the traditional energy companies think is worth doing," says Vinod Khosla, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Microsystems and now heads Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, one of the most prominent clean-energy venture-capital firms. "There is almost no technology risk-taking in any of the energy companies." Khosla predicts that within five years there will be a green form of electricity that is cheaper than coal, and cleaner fuels that are cheaper than oil.

Butler also notes that although the US lags far behind Europe's leaders, Denmark and Germany, in renewables, its venture-capital investments in clean tech now more than double those in Europe.

California scooped $726.2 million of this year's US clean-tech venture funding, followed by Massachusetts ($292.6 million) and Texas ($149.4 million). Almost $1 billion of US investment went abroad, including a $200-million investment in Brazil's Brazilian Renewable Energy, which produces ethanol, and a $118-million investment in China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, which makes photovoltaic solar systems.

This is the reason I refuse to surrender all hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.