'Time running out' as CO2 levels hit new high: UN
May 26, 2014 6:21 AM
Geneva (AFP) - Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have crossed a new threshold, the UN's weather agency said Monday, highlighting the urgency of curbing manmade, climate-altering greenhouse gases.
In April, for the first time, the mean monthly CO2 concentration in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million (ppm) throughout the northern hemisphere, which pollutes more than the south, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.
"This should serve as yet another wakeup call about the constantly rising levels of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change," WMO chief Michel Jarraud said in a statement.
"If we are to preserve our planet for future generations, we need urgent action to curb new emissions of these heat-trapping gases. Time is running out," he warned.
Spring values in the northern hemisphere had previously spiked over the 400 ppm level, but this was the first time the monthly mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded the threshold.
The global annual average is set to exceed the 400 ppm level in 2015 or 2016, the agency added.
The threshold is of symbolic and scientific significance, and reinforces evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the non-stop increase in heat-trapping gases, the WMO underlined.
CO2 stays locked in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and its lifespan in the oceans is longer still.
It is by far the most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities and was responsible for 85 percent of the increase in radiative forcing, the warming effect on the climate, from 2002-2012.
According to the WMO, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 393.1 parts per million in 2012, or 141 percent of the pre-industrial level of 278 parts per million.
The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased on average by two parts per million every year for the past decade.
Sierra Leone confirms first case of Ebola as epidemic spreads
Posted: May 27, 2014
FREETOWN: Sierra Leone on Monday confirmed its first death from Ebola and said it was restricting travel in some areas to stop the deadly haemorrhagic fever sweeping west Africa from claiming more lives.
Minister of Health and Sanitation Miatta Kargbo urged the public to remain "vigilant" and reaffirmed an earlier ban on trips to attend funerals in Guinea, the epicentre of the west African outbreak.
The eastern regions of Kailahun, where the first case was confirmed, and Kenema have been designated as "high risk" and travel there has also been restricted, she said.
"The ministry has now officially moved from a preparedness level to a response level and specifically management activities have now been put in place," Kargbo told a press conference.
"We are beginning to find out that the recent cases in the country are from individuals who went to funerals in Guinea."
Chief Medical Officer Brima Kargbo said the first Ebola victim was female traditional healer who had gone to a funeral in the neighbouring country.
The deadly haemorrhagic fever, which has no cure, erupted in Guinea in January where it claimed 81 lives -- according to government figures released three weeks ago -- and also spread to Liberia.
Sierra Leone health ministry official Amara Jambai said 11 people with acute diarrhoea and vomiting had been admitted to the Koindu Community Health Centre in a region bordering southern Guinea.
Four people have died, one of which was confirmed to have been caused by Ebola, and five were responding to treatment.
"The cause of death of the other three is still being investigated," he said.
- Renewed fears -
Ebola is one of a handful of similar fevers that cause vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain, and in severe cases, organ failure and unstoppable internal bleeding.
It can be transmitted by blood and other bodily fluids, as well as the handling of contaminated corpses or infected animals, known to be vectors of the disease.
West African authorities have been scrambling to stop mourners from helping it to spread by touching bodies of the dead during traditional funeral rituals.
The World Health Organisation has described the region's first Ebola outbreak as one of the most challenging since the virus was first identified in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The UN health agency said in a statement that it had been informed that the virus had appeared in Liberia and spoke of five possible cases.
The virus had been suspected but laboratory tests had eventually ruled out Ebola following several suspect cases earlier this year.
Gambia earlier this month lifted a ban on flights from Liberia and Sierra Leone imposed at the peak of the Ebola virus outbreak as Guinea said the spread of the deadly virus had "slowed significantly".
According to a May 23 statement by the WHO, 258 cases of viral haemorrhagic fever, of which 174 have resulted in deaths, have been reported in Guinea.
Out of the 258 cases, Conarky has confirmed 146 Ebola cases, 95 of them deadly.
In Liberia, which borders both Guinea and Sierra Leone, six cases of Ebola have been confirmed out of 12 cases of haemorrhagic fever, nine of them deadly.
No suspicious case was reported there since April 9 and the outbreak is considered under control but the border regions continue to be monitored closely.
Industry readies fight against Obama climate regulations to stir up voter anger
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 6:30 EDT
This summer is likely to see a series of attacks by industry opponents of a U.S. plan to curb carbon emissions from power plants in a bid to stir voter anger ahead of elections in November, when voters in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia may determine whether Democrats keep control of the Senate.
On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new rules to crack down on power plant emissions, part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat global climate change. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will release a report Wednesday analyzing the effect the yet-to-be-announced regulations will have on the economy.
Coal industry lobbyists say the new rules will probably raise household electricity costs, prompt power brown-outs during heat waves and cold snaps, and destroy jobs at coal mines and manufacturing plants.
“We fully expect that whatever comes out will be overly stringent, and will be something that is not good for American consumers or businesses,” said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
In March, Sheehan’s group, which represents coal mining companies as well as owners of coal-fired plants like American Electric Power and Southern Co, released a report warning that the EPA plan might cause retail electricity prices to rise in 29 states and kill more than 2.85 million jobs.
The National Mining Association, which represents large coal mining companies including Peabody Coal Co, Arch Coal Inc, Alpha Natural Resources and Cloud Peak Energy Inc has spent $1 million on a radio and digital campaign in five states depicting shocked consumers opening expensive electricity bills.
“Potential EPA regulations on existing power plants could have far-reaching implications on the American economy,” said Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce. “The Chamber is heavily engaged in the rule-making process and is preparing an aggressive response.”
To be sure, because the new U.S. rules will take years to be implemented, the industry’s arguments have “the virtue of not being testable” before the midterm elections, said Andrew Holland, a former Republican legislative aide who is now an energy analyst at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank.
Holland said the industry has made similar arguments for previous EPA rules, arguing they would drive up costs. But in those instances, the rules have ended up being cheaper than the industry feared, he said.
“It turns out that engineers are better at this than the lawyers expect them to be,” said Holland.
Industry groups made their concerns clear to regulators. For example, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association sent three of its experts to a White House meeting to show how not-for-profit co-ops that rely on coal for fuel could be pinched by the new EPA proposal.
“They obviously are concerned about cost,” said Jo Ann Emerson, chief executive of NRECA, who explained the co-ops provide power to some of the nation’s poorest regions.
And some industry coalitions have said they will try to work with the EPA and state officials to craft practical rules rather than flatly oppose them.
After the EPA first said in 2008 that it would treat carbon as a pollutant, power companies including AES and NRG and manufacturers including Boeing and 3M formed the National Climate Coalition.
It wants the EPA to phase in standards, and eventually develop rules for companies and states to trade credits for carbon-reducing actions, said Robert Wyman, a partner with law firm Latham & Watkins, who represents the coalition.
The coalition will take at least a week to read and understand the EPA rule before responding, Wyman said.
“Obviously the more politicized the issue becomes, the more likely it is that rhetoric will overshadow some of the technical issues,” he said.
Forget ‘saving the Earth’ – it’s an angry beast that we’ve awoken
By The Conversation
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 13:23 EDT
By Clive Hamilton
Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to “save the planet” and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.
Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as “the wakened giant” and “the ornery beast”, a planet that is “fighting back” and seeking “revenge”, and a new era of “angry summers” and “death spirals”.
Whether you consider yourself to be an environmentalist or not, the warnings from Earth system science have far-reaching implications for us all.
Nature fights back
In its early days, the science of ecology showed how easily complex ecosystems could be degraded and species obliterated. In 1962, by observing the damage to humans and nature caused by factories and industrial agriculture, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring presented nature as highly vulnerable to destruction by the power of synthetic chemicals.
The early view of nature as fragile, that is, easily disrupted and unable to repair itself, has been tempered somewhat by evidence that many ecosystems are more resilient and can adapt to new circumstances.
But whether fragile or robust, the Earth has been understood as unresponsive, neutral and essentially benign.
This understanding has various expressions, including “Mother Earth” as nurturing, feminine and easily damaged entity. The notion of living harmoniously with nature took hold, inspired by images of pre-industrial peoples living close to the natural world.
Underlying these conceptions is a view that, while humans can cause a great deal of damage, nature is passive and always our victim.
Yet now we see that the planet has been disturbed from its resting state, jolted out of the providential era of climatic stability characteristic of the last 10,000 years, and is now on a new and largely uncontrollable path that is creating conditions dangerous for human life.
Seeing the bigger picture
The rise of Earth system science – which has brought together many different fields of science so that we can better understand how the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and other systems work together – has changed the way we see the world.
Now, the Earth is understood as a dynamic system with strong feedback effects, which can suddenly shift it to a new state when critical points are crossed.
So profound has been the influence of humans that scientists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, defined by the fact that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.
NASA explains the basics of Earth systems science.
As Earth scientist James Syvitski writes:
At some point, we graduated from adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us … But now we regularly decelerate and accelerate natural processes, focus energy in extraordinary ways and alter, destroy or create ecosystems.
That means we must no longer see the Earth as the submissive repository for supplying our resources or taking our wastes, nor as the docile victim of our rapacity or carelessness.
This newer understanding of the Earth has been vividly expressed by palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker:
The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciV6Uaeobxk
When the Earth is understood this way, the task of environmentalism can no longer be to “save” or preserve the planet, for the planet we wanted to save has already become something else. Our task now is to do what we can to pacify, or at least not aggravate further, something vastly more powerful than we are.
If we have wakened the slumbering beast by poking and prodding it, the prudent course is firstly to stop. But we cannot put it back to sleep.
There is no return to the peaceful conditions of the Holocene, at least not for thousands of years; but to provoke it further, as we still are, is foolishness on an epic scale.
Respect, not love
Yes, the Earth still demands our respect, but it is a respect founded on trepidation rather than love. If we are inclined to think of the planet as Gaia, we would do better to regard it not as the all-loving, all-nurturing Mother Earth of the romantics, but more like the half-crazed, bloodthirsty and vindictive goddess of the original Greek tales.
Some like French philosopher Michel Serres have argued we must negotiate a new contract with nature. Under the terms of this natural contract humanity would reject mastery “in favour of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect”. The contract would grant nature rights and make reparations.
Twenty years ago, that kind of thinking seemed to make sense. But today we must ask whether the Earth, roused from its slumber, is in any mood to sign a contract with us.
Earth system science now teaches us that the planet to which we might have hoped to graciously offer a peace deal – the receptive, predictable object of our exploitation and neglect – existed only in our imaginations.
The Earth does not want our love. Instead of talking restitution, would we perhaps be wiser to be preparing for retribution?
This article is based on a speech at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Climate Change Doomed the Ancients
By ERIC H. CLINE
MAY 27, 2014
THIS month, a report issued by a prominent military advisory board concluded that climate change posed a serious threat to America’s national security.
The authors, 16 retired high-ranking officers, warned that droughts, rising seas and extreme weather events, among other environmental threats, were already causing global “instability and conflict.”
But Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a stalwart believer that global warming is a “hoax,” dismissed the report as a publicity stunt.
Perhaps the senator needs a history lesson, because climate change has been leading to global conflict — and even the collapse of civilizations — for more than 3,000 years. Drought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad.
One of the most vivid examples comes from around 1200 B.C. A centuries-long drought in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, contributed to — if not caused — widespread famine, unrest and ultimately the destruction of many once prosperous cities, according to four recent studies.
The scientists determined the length and severity of the drought by examining ancient pollen as well as oxygen and carbon isotope data drawn from alluvial and mineral deposits. All of their conclusions are corroborated by correspondence, inscribed and fired on clay tablets, dating from that time.
Ancient letters from the Hittite kingdom, in what is now modern-day Turkey, beseech neighboring powers for shipments of grain to stave off famine caused by the drought. (The drought is thought to have affected much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Syria for up to 300 years.) One letter, sent from a Hittite king, pleads for help: “It is a matter of life or death!”
Another letter, sent from the city of Emar, in what is now inland Syria, states simply, “If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger.” The kingdom of Egypt, as well as the city of Ugarit, on the coast of what is now Syria, responded with food and supplies, but it is not clear if they were able to provide enough relief.
It certainly created problems of national security for the great powers of the time. Correspondence between the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians — effectively, the Group of 8 of the Late Bronze Age — includes warnings of attacks from enemy ships in the Mediterranean. The marauders are thought to have been the Sea Peoples, possibly from the western Mediterranean, who were probably fleeing their island homes because of the drought and famine and were moving across the Mediterranean as both refugees and conquerors.
One letter sent to Ugarit advised the king to “be on the lookout for the enemy and make yourself very strong!” The warning probably came too late, for another letter dating from the same time states: “When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burned and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!”
While sea levels may not have been rising then, as they are now, changes in the water temperature may have been to blame for making life virtually unlivable in parts of the region.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science found that the surface temperatures of the Mediterranean Sea cooled rapidly during this time, severely reducing precipitation over the coasts. The study concluded that agriculture would have suffered and that the conditions might have influenced the “population declines, urban abandonments and long-distance migrations associated with the period.”
To top it off, catastrophic events, in the form of a series of earthquakes, also rocked many ancient cities in these areas from around 1225 to 1175 B.C. These, together with the famines and droughts, would have further undermined the societies of the time, most likely leading to internal rebellions by the underclass and peasant populations who were facing severe food shortages, as well as invasions by migrating peoples.
We still do not know the specific details of the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age or how the cascade of events came to change society so drastically. But it is clear that climate change was one of the primary drivers, or stressors, leading to the societal breakdown.
The era that followed is known as the first Dark Ages, during which the thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C. suddenly ceased to exist. It took decades, and even hundreds of years in some areas, for the people in these regions to rebuild.
We live in a world that has more similarities to that of the Late Bronze Age than one might suspect, including, as the British archaeologist Susan Sherratt has put it, an “increasingly homogeneous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture” in which “political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.”
But there is one important difference. The Late Bronze Age civilizations collapsed at the hands of Mother Nature. It remains to be seen if we will cause the collapse of our own.
Corporations and wealthy elites now control more than 75 percent of the world’s farmland
By John Vidal, The Guardian
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 18:15 EDT
Small farmers are being squeezed out as mega-farms and plantations gobble up their land
The world’s food supplies are at risk because farmland is becoming rapidly concentrated in the hands of wealthy elites and corporations, a study has found.
Small farmers, the UN says, grow 70% of the world’s food but a new analysis of government data suggests the land which they control is shrinking every year as mega-farms and plantations squeeze them onto less than 25% of the world’s available farmland, says international land-use group Grain. These mega-farms are less productive in terms of amount of food they produce per area of land, the report argues.
“Small farms have less than a quarter of the world’s agricultural land – or less than 20% excluding China and India. Such farms are getting smaller all the time, and if this trend persists they might not be able to continue to feed the world,” says the report which draws on government statistics and calls for a stop on land grabbing by corporations.
The report suggests that the single most important factor in the drive to push small farmers onto ever smaller parcels of land is the worldwide expansion of industrial commodity crop farms. “The powerful demands of food and energy industries are shifting farmland and water away from direct local food production to the production of commodities for industrial processing,” it says. The land area occupied by just four crops – soybean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane – has quadrupled over the past 50 years. Over 140 million hectares of fields and forests have been taken over by these plantations since the 1960s – roughly the same area as all the farmland in the EU.
“What we found was shocking,” said Henk Hobbelink of Grain. “If small farmers continue to lose the very basis of their existence, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself. We need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems.”
Big farms have been getting bigger nearly everywhere with rising numbers of small and medium-sized farmers going out of business in the past 20 years, say the authors. Belgium, Finland, France, Germany and Norway in western Europe have each lost about 70% of their farms since the 1970s while Bulgaria, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia each lost over 40% of their farms from 2003 to 2010. Poland alone lost almost 1m farmers between 2005 and 2010.
“Within the EU as a whole, over 6m farms disappeared between 2003 and 2010, bringing the total number of farms down to almost the same level as in 2000, before the inclusion of 12 new member states with their 8.7m new farmers,” says the report , released with international peasant organisation Via Campesina.
But the concentration of land ownership is seen on every continent. Argentina lost more than one-third of its farms in the two decades from 1988 to 2008. Between 1997 to 2007, Chile lost 15% of its farms with the biggest farms doubling their average size, from 7,000 to 14,000 ha per farm. The United States has lost 30% of its farms in the last 50 years. Here, the number of very small farms has almost tripled, while the number of very large farms has more than quintupled.
In addition most farms have been getting smaller over time due to factors such as population pressure and lack of access to land. In India, the average farm size roughly halved from 1971 to 2006. In China, the average area of land cultivated per household fell by 25% between 1985 and 2000. In Africa, average farm size is also falling.
The authors say land reform is urgently needed if enough food is to be grown to feed everyone. “What we see happening in many countries … is a kind of reverse agrarian reform, whether it’s through corporate land grabbing in Africa, the recent agribusiness-driven coup d’état in Paraguay, the massive expansion of soybean plantations in Latin America, the opening up of Burma to foreign investors, or the extension of the European Union and its agricultural model eastward,” says Hobbelink.
“In all of these processes, control over land is being usurped from small producers and their families, with elites and corporate powers pushing people onto smaller and smaller land holdings, or off the land entirely into camps or cities,” he said.
The takeover of small farmers’ land is now accelerating, says the report with nearly 60% of this land use change occurring in the past 20 years. The report estimates that 90% of all farms worldwide are “small”, holding on average 2.2 hectares.
The report also found that small farmers often twice as productive as large farms and are more environmentally sustainable. “Although big farms generally consume more resources, control the best lands, receive most of the irrigation water and infrastructure … they have lower technical efficiency and therefore lower overall productivity. Much of this has to do with low levels of employment used on big farms in order to maximise return on investment.
“Our data [suggests] that if all farms in Kenya had the current productivity of the country’s small farms, Kenya’s agricultural production would double. In Central America and Ukraine, it would almost triple. In Hungary and Tajikistan it would increase by 30%. In Russia, it would be increased by a factor of six,” the report says.
“Beyond strict productivity measurements, small farms also are much better at producing and utilising biodiversity, maintaining landscapes, contributing to local economies, providing work opportunities and promoting social cohesion, not to mention their real and potential contribution to reversing the climate crisis.”
The most productive farmers in the world are possibly found in Botswana, the report argues, where 93% of the farmers have small patches of land but together they grow all the country’s groundnuts, 99% of its maize, 90% of the millet, 73% of beans and 25% of the sorghum on just 8% of the farmland.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Big Waves Bust Up Sea Ice, May Be Playing Role in Melt
By Climate Central
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 13:55 EDT
Big ocean waves whipped up by storms hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Earth’s poles could play a bigger role in breaking up polar sea ice and thus contributing to its melt more than had been thought, a new study suggests.
The study, detailed in the May 29 issue of the journal Nature, found that these waves penetrate further into the fields of sea ice around Antarctica than current models would suggest, breaking up the ice well away from the edge of the ice. And previous studies have suggested that bigger waves might be more common near the ice edges at both poles as climate change alters wind patterns.
Incorporating this information into models could help scientists better predict the patterns of retreat and expansion seen in the sea ice in both Antarctica and the Arctic — patterns that are at least partly related to the effects of climate change — the researchers say.
The Sea Ice Situation
Sea ice is, as its name would suggest, frozen ocean water; it differs from icebergs, glaciers and their floating tongues called ice shelves, which all originate on land. Sea ice grows in the winter months, and wanes as summer’s warmth causes it to melt. The amount of ice present can influence the movement of ocean currents — on average, about 9.7 million square miles of the ocean is covered with sea ice, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
Warming in the Arctic, which is progressing at a faster rate than for the planet as a whole, has fueled steep reductions in sea ice, causing it to both thin and retreat. In Antarctica, the picture has been more complicated, with some areas seeing retreat and others sea ice growth, which is potentially linked to the changes in atmospheric wind patterns that the ozone hole has caused. While models have caught the long-term trends in sea ice extent, they’ve been fairly poor at capturing the major deviations from those trends that can happen year-to-year and in different regions.
Researchers in Australia and New Zealand wanted to see how the action of big waves — defined as those with a height of at least 3 meters (about 10 feet) — might play a role in influencing the patterns of retreat and expansion, and if they could help improve the reliability of sea ice models.
No one had measured the propagation of large waves through sea ice before, because, as study lead author Alison Kohout, of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, said, “it’s really difficult.” The sea ice is in some of the most remote regions on the planet, and icebreaker ships must be used to plow through the thick ice.
Kohout and her colleagues went on a two-month ocean voyage to drop five buoys onto the sea ice that could measure the waves as they passed. It is thought that the ice behaves elastically as the waves pass through, bending with the wave peaks and troughs, weakening, and eventually breaking.
For someone who had spent years studying the interaction of sea ice and waves on dry land, the opportunity to be in the field, “to actually see it, and to actually see waves” and the waves breaking up the ice was “quite incredible,” Kohout told Climate Central.
What the team found was that the big waves weren’t losing energy as quickly as smaller waves, allowing them to penetrate much deeper into the ice field and break up the ice there. That exposes more of the ice to the ocean, potentially causing more rapid melt and pushing back the edge of the sea ice.
The researchers also compared observed positions of the sea ice edge with modeled wave heights in the Southern Ocean from 1997 to 2009 and found a good match between the waves and the patterns of retreat and expansions: More big waves matched sea ice retreat and vice versa.
“We just think that might be able to help understand this regional variability around Antarctica,” Kohout said.
Kohout and other researchers agree that more work needs to be done to fully understand how waves might be influencing sea ice. For example, not enough data exists to examine the relationships in the Arctic.
The study was also limited in what it tells researchers because it only looked at smaller ice floes, said the NSIDC’s Julienne Stroeve, who was not involved in the study. “It's an interesting study, but I suppose I would like to see how this would impact on breaking large ice floes into smaller ones since that's one way that swell penetrating into the ice pack could help to facilitate more melt,” Stroeve said in an email.
Kohout and her colleagues are planning another expedition in a couple of years, and are working to better understand just why big waves don’t dissipate as fast as smaller waves, she said.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s most-anticipated ‘Cosmos’ — except by climate change deniers
By Arturo Garcia
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 20:31 EDT
In a clip from this week’s episode, Cosmos host Neil DeGrasse Tyson debunks climate change denial by simply taking a walk on the beach with a dog, Mother Jones reported.
“Weather is hard to predict, like my friend here,” Tyson explains, with the dog at his side. “But Climate is predictable. Climate has changed many times over the long history of the Earth. But always in response to a global force. The strongest force driving climate change right now is the increase in CO2 and the burning of fossil fuels, which is trapping more heat from the sun. All that additional energy has to go somewhere. Some of it warms the air. Most of it ends up in the oceans. All over the world, the oceans are getting warmer.”
The dog, DeGrasse Tyson says, represents weather’s frequent fluctuations because he darts around as they walk on the beach. But while he’s not able to predict what will catch his canine companion’s attention next, he said, he can predict the range of his “meandering” by holding the dog on a leash.
“We can’t observe climate directly; all we see is the weather,” DeGrasse Tyson says. “The average weather over the course of years reveals a pattern. I represent that long-term trend, which is climate. Keep your eye on the man, not the dog.”
The chaotic nature of weather, DeGrasse Tyson says, makes it impossible to predict, despite complaints by naysayers about the chances of a “global cooling.”
“That’s why those 10-day weather forecasts are useless,” DeGrasse Tyson says. “A butterfly flaps its wings in Bali, and six weeks later, your outdoor wedding in Maine is ruined.”
Mother Jones reported that the episode has more “powerful refutations” of arguments against climate change, including a segment in which DeGrasse Tyson discusses global warming’s effects in the Arctic. The series has already come under fire from creationists due to its emphasis on science over religious dogma.
Watch the video, as posted online on Wednesday, below.
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Rising sea levels will be too much, too fast for Florida
By The Conversation
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 11:10 EDT
By Harold R. Wanless, University of Miami
It is amazing for me to see the very aggressive building boom underway in south Florida; on the beaches and barrier islands, throughout downtown and in the low western areas bordering the Everglades. They are building like there is no tomorrow. Unfortunately, they are right.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published its assessment of sea level rise in 2012 as part of the National Climate Assessment. Including estimates based on limited and maximum melt of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, it anticipated a raise of 4.1 to 6.6ft (1.25 to 2m) by 2100, reaching 2ft (0.6m) by around 2050 and 3ft (0.9m) by around 2075.
This degree of sea level rise would make nearly all the barrier islands of the world uninhabitable, inundate a major portion of the world’s deltas, upon which hundreds of millions of people live, and leave low-lying coastal zones like southeast Florida increasingly difficult to maintain infrastructure services for and increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and storms.
The flooding of Florida will begin in earnest within the next 25 years.
Peter Harlem, Florida International University
Most models of projected sea level rise assume a gradual acceleration of sea level in line with gradually accelerating ice melt. But our knowledge of how sea level rose in the past paints a very different picture of response to climate change.
At the peak of the last ice age 18,000 years ago sea level was some 420ft (128m) lower due to the vast quantities of water locked away in continental ice sheets. Subsequent ice melt was not a gradual process, but rather a series of very rapid pulses of sea level rise interspersed with pauses in which coastal environments formed. During pulses the seas rose between 3-30ft (0.9-9m) fast enough to drown not just reefs, sandy barrier islands, tidal inlets and other coastal features, stranding their remnants across the continental shelf, now disappeared beneath the ocean.
The cracks are showing
That is what happens when climate change warms enough to destabilise some ice sheet sector. It rapidly disintegrates, resulting in a rapid rise. This is what is beginning to happen to the Greenland ice sheet, where surface melting has concentrated dust and black carbon in the ice on the melting surface darkening and further accelerating the surface melt.
More importantly, warmed ocean water has accelerated the ice melt at both poles, working its way into the glacial fjords under the ice sheet in Greenland and under the outlet glaciers around the Antarctic ice sheets. While this “warm” water is only 2-4°C, even this moderate heat is capable of vast amounts of ice melt, and once started, the melt creates positive reinforcing feedbacks that speed the acceleration far beyond anything originally anticipated.
The inundation will speed up over the decades as more meltwater boosts the oceans.
Peter Harlem, Florida International University
Water on the melting ice surface adsorbs more heat which accelerates the surface melt. Meltwater percolating down through the ice lubricates the base permitting faster motion, which results in more extensive fracturing, in turn allowing more, warmer water through the fractures and into the interior of the ice sheet, and so on. We are most certainly witnessing the onset of a rapid pulse of sea level rise.
The view from above
Flying 50 miles over Greenland’s interior last summer, the Jacobshaven (or Ilulissat) Icefjord looked like the bed of a giant meandering stream carved on the surface of the ice. The bottom of the channel, some 500ft (152m) below the level of the ice sheet above was moving faster than than the ice above, having been penetrated by the warmed ocean water. As a result the ice has dramatically fractured and has accelerated, from moving a couple of miles in a year to over 20. A spectacular but most disturbing experience.
Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the atmosphere for at least another 30 years. And as most of this heat has already been absorbed by the oceans, which have the capacity to store heat for centuries, the overall effect on ice sheet melt will continue for centuries, accelerating all the way. If we are at just 5ft (1.5m) rise at the end of the century, sea level will be rising at a foot per decade – think about trying to maintain a port facility anywhere with that.
Florida – here today…
To consider the risk in present investments is beyond sobering. By the middle of this century most of the barrier islands of south Florida and the world will be abandoned and the people relocated, while low areas such as Sweetwater and Hialeah bordering the Everglades will be frequently flooded and increasingly difficult places to live. Florida will start to lose its freshwater resources, its infrastructure will begin to fail, and the risk of catastrophic storm surges and hurricane flooding will increase.
Florida counties should be planning for their future to determine at what point the costs of maintaining functional infrastructure, insurance, and human health and safety becomes economically impossible. Already, there are areas and properties that will become unlivable within a 30-year mortgage cycle. The Four-county Compact on climate change in southeast Florida has some 1,200 action items to help ensure some stability for the communities there.
And by the end of the century, large parts will be uninhabitable.
Peter Harlem, Florida International University
For south Florida, forget the levees and dikes. That may be fine for New Orleans and the Netherlands, but not here where the limestone and sand under our homes is much too porous and permeable. For each day action is put off, it becomes harder and more expensive to make the inevitable changes required. Without planning, there will come a point where society will collapse into chaos.
Harold R. Wanless does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Obama to unveil historic climate change plan to cut US carbon pollution
• Proposed regulations could cut carbon pollution by up to 25%
• President still faces potential opposition from Republicans
• Q&A: why the carbon proposal could make climate history
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 May 2014 21.11 BST
President Barack Obama will unveil a plan on Monday that will cut carbon pollution from power plants and promote cap-and-trade, undertaking the most significant action on climate change in American history.
The proposed regulations Obama will launch at the White House on Monday could cut carbon pollution by as much as 25% from about 1,600 power plants in operation today, according to those claiming familiarity with the plan.
Power plants are the country's single biggest source of carbon pollution – responsible for up to 40% of the country's emissions.
The rules, which were drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency and are under review by the White House, are expected to do more than Obama, or any other president, has done so far to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for climate change.
They will put America on course to meet its international climate goal, and put US diplomats in a better position to leverage climate commitments from big polluters such as China and India, Obama said in a speech to West Point graduates this week.
“I intend to make sure America is out front in a global framework to preserve our planet,” he said. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We can not exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”
It won't be without a fight. Obama went on in his remarks at West Point to take a shot at Republicans who deny climate change is occurring, and the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, on Thursday accused critics of making “doomsday claims” about the costs of cutting carbon.
But the White House still showed some signs of nervousness about a political backlash, releasing a report about expanded oil and gas production on Obama's watch and adding to the furious spinning by environmental and industry groups about the potential costs and benefits of the EPA regulations.
“We actually see this … as the Super Bowl of climate politics,” said Peter Altman, director of the climate and clean air campaign for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which produced a model carbon-cutting plan that has helped guide the EPA regulations.
But if all unfolds according to plan, Obama will have succeeded in overcoming blanket opposition – and outright climate denial in many cases – from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, an industry-funded misinformation campaign, and a slew of anticipated lawsuits.
Obama had originally hoped to cut carbon pollution by moving a bill through Congress. Four years after that effort fell apart, campaigners say the EPA rules could deliver significant emissions cuts – near the 17% Obama proposed at the Copenhagen climate summit – and the cap-and-trade programmes that were so reviled by Republicans.
The EPA, using its authority under the Clean Air Act, proposed the first rule phase, covering future power plants, last September.
In this the more politically contentious phase of the plan, it is widely believed the EPA will depart from the “inside the fence-line” convention of earlier environmental regulations for mercury and other pollutants, which focused on emissions-scrubbing on specific power plants.
The EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, is seeking steep reductions – as much as 25% – but she has hinted repeatedly that she will allow states latitude in how they reach those targets.
The plan would allow electricity companies to reduce pollution by shutting down the oldest and most polluting coal plants. They can install carbon-sucking retrofits. They can expand wind and solar energy, upgrade the electrical grid, encourage customers to update to more efficient heating and cooling systems, or more efficient appliances and lightbulbs.
“They have recognised huge emissions reductions opportunities are often cheaper than trying to do it all inside the plant,” said David Doniger, who heads the climate programme at the NRDC. “If you want to get substantial reductions and you want to get it economically, you have to take into account a system-wide approach.”
The EPA to expected to try to soften the impact of the regulations by coming out with a range of targets, taking account of the energy mix in different states, and by allowing a two-step phase-in of the targets, with steeper cuts delayed until 2030.
But campaigners and industry are bracing for a fight.
The Chamber of Commerce, one of the major opponents of the environmental regulations, said in a report on Wednesday the EPA regulations would cost $51bn a year in higher electricity prices and lost jobs and investment – but those figures were disputed.
Coal mining companies, power plant operators that are heavily dependent on coal, attorney generals in about a dozen Republican-controlled states, and conservative think tanks also argue the system-wide approach oversteps the EPA's authority, and are lining up for legal challenges.
“I suspect we will see more environmental litigation as it relates to CO2 emissions going forward from a variety of sources,” said Karen Harbert, who heads the Chamber's energy institute.
America's carbon dioxide emissions have been falling over the last few years to the lowest levels since the 1990s, because of a switch from coal to cheaper natural gas, and on a smaller scale increased investment in renewables. The economic downturn also reduced demand for electricity.
The White House said those changes – which were mainly market-driven – showed the EPA regulations would not hurt the economy as critics claim.
“We can transform our energy system to be less carbon intensive while still growing the economy,” Obama's counsellor, John Podesta, told a conference call.
The EPA rules would fix those reductions in place and – as several campaigners and energy analysts noted – be a relatively easy reach for a large number of states which have already moved to cut emissions and expand wind and solar power.
More than 30 states already have regulations promoting renewable energy. Minnesota and Colorado are pledged to get 30% of their power from renewables by 2020.
Meanwhile, nine north-eastern states and California are already rewarding power companies which cut carbon through operating cap-and-trade systems.
Those changes in the energy landscape – and an intense outreach campaign by McCarthy and other officials – could defuse of the opposition, said Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant who served on Bill Clinton's climate change task force. “I think there is a divide between the companies,” he said. “Coal heavy companies are going to fight it tooth and nail, especially behind the scenes, legally. The more gas, nuclear and renewable-heavy companies are going to be more sanguine about it.”
The EPA rules could also end up vastly expanding regional cap-and-trade programmes. Kelly Speakes-Backman, who heads the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the north-east, said she had already had quiet approaches from a number of state officials.
She said the nine states in RGGI had already cut carbon dioxide emissions 40% from 2005 levels, and were aiming to halve carbon pollution by 2020. The new EPA rules would be a “game-changer” for cap-and-trade.
Once Obama makes his announcement on Monday, the clock starts ticking. The EPA will have one year to take public comment from anyone from Greenpeace to Peabody Coal before finalising the new standards in June 2015.
Once those rules are final, the states will have one year, or until June 2016, to submit their plans for meeting the new EPA targets.
With Obama's term ending in January 2017, those are tight deadlines – especially with the legal and political battles ahead. But it does put Obama in position to fulfill the promises he made on climate change when he was first elected in 2008.
“This whole suite of policies is getting us within shooting range of where we could have been with a cap-and-trade bill,” said Vicki Arroyo, who heads the climate centre at Georgetown University law school. “If the EPA is really restructuring programmes to take advantage of systems wide benefits … then that is just huge.”
Carbon pollution Q&A: why Obama's proposal could make climate history
EPA-drafted regulations could cut carbon emissions responsible for climate change. Here's everything you need to know
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 May 2014 21.11 BST
Why is Obama doing this instead of Congress?
The House voted for cap and trade in 2009, but the bill died in the Senate. Congress has shown no interest in taking up the issue – and half of the Republican members deny climate change is occurring or oppose measures to cut emissions.
Obama said last year he would use his executive authority to deal with climate change, and now he is.
Why is this a big deal in terms of climate change?
Climate legislation would have imposed economy-wide limits on carbon pollution. With that option off the table, this is the next best thing. Power plants are the single biggest source of carbon pollution, responsible for up to 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change. Much of that carbon pollution is produced by burning coal, especially in old plants.
Obama already cut emissions from the second biggest source – transport – with new rules for cars during his first term.
Will they still be able to keep the lights on without coal?
Yes. Cheap natural gas, now available because of fracking, was already squeezing out coal in power plants, and now accounts for about 30% of electricity generation, according to official figures. Hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal power are expanding and make up about 12%. Nuclear accounts for about 19%
Will this mean many more nuclear plants?
Unlikely – because of the multi-billion dollar price tags and long lead time in permitting and construction. Energy experts expect the emissions reductions to come from retrofits, expanding renewable power, and finding ways to reduce waste, such as modernising the electricity grid.
What should I look out for on Monday?
It's still not clear how tough the new regulations will be. Industry and environment groups will be looking at the emissions reductions target but just as much at the starting and finishing lines. Carbon pollution from power plants has been dropping since 2007, because of natural gas and the downturn. A 25% cut on 2005 levels would be much easier to reach than a 25% cut on the – already lower – 2012 levels. People will also be watching to see whether Obama sets even stricter targets farther out in time, for 2030 or 2040.
A Price Tag on Carbon as a Climate Rescue Plan
By JUSTIN GILLIS
MAY 30, 2014
KEWAUNEE, Wis. — Bryan T. Pagel, a dairy farmer, watched as a glistening slurry of cow manure disappeared down a culvert. If recycling the waste on his family’s farm would help to save the world, he was happy to go along.
Out back, machinery was breaking down the manure and capturing a byproduct called methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A huge Caterpillar engine roared as it burned the methane to generate electricity, keeping it out of the atmosphere.
The $3.2 million system also reduces odors at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, one of the largest in Wisconsin, but it would not have been built without a surprising source of funds: a California initiative that is investing in carefully chosen projects, even ones far beyond its borders, to reduce emissions as part of the battle against climate change.
“When they came out here and told us they were willing to send us checks, we were thrilled,” Mr. Pagel said.
California’s program is the latest incarnation of an increasingly popular — and much debated — mechanism that has emerged as one of the primary weapons against global warming. From China to Norway, Kazakhstan to the Northeastern United States, governments are requiring industries to buy permits allowing them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases. Under these plans, the allowable levels of pollution are steadily reduced and the cost of permits rises, creating an economic incentive for companies to cut emissions.
The system encourages companies to find the least expensive ways to make the cuts, either by adopting cleaner energy technology or by investing in outside emission-control projects, like the Pagels’ methane digester.
Congress rejected a national plan of this type during President Obama’s first term, but 10 states, including most of those in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, have developed their own programs. And the approach is expected to get a huge lift on Monday when Mr. Obama unveils a long-awaited national plan requiring states to lower their power plant emissions. One likely effect will be to encourage more states to adopt systems like California’s.
Already, the approach is spreading worldwide, with the number of people living in places that have such a system nearing one billion, or 14 percent of the world’s population, including about 80 million Americans.
“The point now is to say, look, this can work, it can be scaled, and please join,” said Frank A. Wolak, an economist at Stanford University.
Yet in the decade it has been used to tackle global warming, this approach has had a turbulent history. The world’s largest such system, in Europe, has had severe problems, including gyrations in the prices that polluters have to pay. Given a lack of evidence that the system can actually solve the emissions problem, some environmental groups and scientists have developed serious reservations.
“The reason I don’t support what we’re doing is not that I don’t think something needs to be done,” said Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist at Oxford University. “I just don’t think it’s effective, and I don’t see it ever being effective.”
Drought-plagued California, which Gov. Jerry Brown recently called the “epicenter” of climate change, hopes to prove that capitalism can work in the fight against global warming. The state took great care in setting up its system, which is now being seen as a global test case.
Eighteen months into the venture, it is still too soon to tell how well it will work. But the state has so far managed to avoid some of the mistakes that have plagued efforts in other parts of the world. Hundreds of industrial facilities have been brought under the plan, prompting those businesses to study how to use less energy, and fuel suppliers will be pulled into it next year.
By the end of the decade, the state is expected to collect about $5 billion a year in permit fees, with the bulk of the money being recycled into clean-energy projects.
Worldwide, other approaches to global warming are also being considered. A more ambitious push could be made on renewable energy, like solar and wind. Power companies might be ordered to capture their carbon emissions and bury them underground. Forests could be preserved or allowed to regrow to absorb more carbon dioxide from the air.
But all those methods have drawbacks, and interviews by The New York Times with more than 80 experts in nine countries revealed sharp disagreements about which to embrace.
REDUCING TOTAL EMISSIONS
Industries can reduce their emissions by spending money to upgrade their facilities and equipment, or they can use the carbon market to purchase the carbon permits needed to cover their emissions — whichever is cheaper.
Industries can also invest in projects elsewhere that lower carbon emissions, like forestry or burning methane from dairy cows. These projects create “offset credits” that can be used or sold, usually at a lower price than government-auctioned permits.
Experts say that limiting the effects of the human-induced warming will almost certainly cost trillions of dollars over generations and require an unprecedented level of cooperation across states and nations — if it can be done at all.
“How do we deal, as a global civilization, with a problem that is decades in the making and is caused by everything we do?” asked Peter Miller, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “It’s the challenge of our time, and there is no road map.”
Drought, Rain and Fire
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists and other experts appointed by the United Nations, found last year that total emissions of carbon into the atmosphere must be kept below one trillion tons if global warming is to be held to tolerable levels. More than half that amount has been emitted since the beginning of the industrial era, and at the rate emissions are going up, the limit will be reached in 30 years or less.
Already, the effects are being felt far and wide. A recent report, the National Climate Assessment, found that every corner of the United States was being hit hard, with more droughts in some regions, more torrential rains in others, worsening forest fires, melting land ice, and the deaths of millions of acres of trees from heat-loving insects.
This month, the global stakes were made clear yet again when researchers reported that ice sheets in the western section of Antarctica had begun an irreversible breakup that could ultimately raise the level of the sea by 10 feet or more.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the National Climate Assessment said.
Some environmental groups have contended that the best way to combat climate change would be for governments to impose tight regulations on businesses that produce greenhouse gases.
Economists have argued, instead, that governments should put a price on emissions. The simplest way to do that would be a tax — the same sort of sin tax applied to liquor and cigarettes, albeit on a vastly larger scale.
In the 1960s, economists in Canada and the United States developed an alternative concept: a market in pollution rights, which they believed would allow companies to decide for themselves how to limit their emissions at the lowest cost.
That approach got its first major tryout in 1990 when the administration of George Bush embraced it to battle acid rain, persuading reluctant congressional Democrats to go along. It reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide far more cheaply than expected, and it was seen as a triumph of conservative thinking about the environment.
The strategy, called cap and trade, is now being applied to greenhouse gases. Governments impose a limit, or cap, on the amount of the gases that can be spewed into the atmosphere by polluters like power plants and refiners. It then issues permits, often called carbon allowances, equal to the level of the cap, with each permit representing a ton of emissions.
The government requires industries to acquire enough permits to equal their emissions. Companies that need permits buy them, either from the government or on a commodity market, with the value set by supply and demand. Over time, the government reduces the cap and the number of permits, driving up their value.
The system is intended to ensure that polluters reduce their emissions, but do it in a way that makes the most financial sense. A company might spend money to upgrade to more efficient equipment, for instance, if that is less expensive than buying permits at the market price at that time. The sale of permits also creates a flow of funds to reduce emissions in economic sectors not covered by the permit system, such as farming or forestry.
Over the past decade, carbon allowances have become the world’s newest commodity. Thousands of people — in small offices in San Francisco, on trading floors in Houston, at power stations all over Europe — now buy and sell the permits every day. They are not all representing polluters; some are simply speculators placing bets on what will happen to carbon prices over time. Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, a research firm, expects permits representing more than nine billion tons of emissions to trade hands this year, with a transaction value of nearly $90 billion.
Yet a few of these government-created markets have been seriously flawed, and some experts argue that time is being wasted on an effort that could, ultimately, fall short.
Problems in Europe
While the United States has been embroiled in a political argument over the past decade about whether climate change is even real, the European Union has largely embraced the science and moved forward. The European Emissions Trading System, which went into operation in 2005, has proved that a market in pollution permits can be made to work across barriers of language and national interest. Yet the European Union has also come to be seen as a case study in what can go wrong if such a system is not set up carefully.
Early on, instead of scrutinizing data on emissions, European regulators trusted companies to tell them how much greenhouse gas they were emitting. Since those numbers would be used in setting the initial emissions cap, the companies had an obvious incentive to exaggerate. When it finally became clear in 2006 that they had done so, and emissions were actually lower than traders had been led to believe, permits suddenly became less valuable and their price crashed in a matter of hours.
Then, just as Europe was tightening its rules, the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and 2009. “You produced less electricity, less steel, less toilet paper — less of everything that was included in the system,” said Stig Schjolset, chief carbon markets analyst with Thomson Reuters Point Carbon in Oslo.
The European Union had put no mechanism in place to respond to these changing economic conditions, so governments kept cranking out carbon permits even as the decline in output meant that fewer were needed. Carbon prices tanked yet again.
Recently the European Union adopted changes that have firmed up prices somewhat. But at just over $7 per ton of carbon dioxide, they are still far below their peak, and below the $30 level that many analysts believe is needed to spur investment in cleaner energy sources.
Moreover, the Europeans have yet to agree on long-term emission targets that would drive up carbon prices and reward investors in clean energy, though proposals are under discussion. “Through the 2020s, there is no clear signal about how the cap will tighten,” said Adrian Gault, chief economist with Britain’s national Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on the problem.
Europe’s broader goals have by no means been a complete failure. The European Union set a target of lowering emissions 20 percent by 2020, and that appears likely to be met — but several studies suggest that is less a result of the carbon market than of economic weakness, as well as subsidies for renewable power. Many experts in Europe fear that later, more ambitious goals will prove unattainable if companies have too little incentive to invest in clean technology. The experts believe emissions throughout the developed world need to fall 80 percent or more by 2050.
“Even if we’re fine to meet the emissions target for 2020, it will be very challenging to meet Europe’s long-term targets,” Mr. Schjolset said. “For that, you need a higher carbon price now.”
California as Pioneer
Mary Nichols cut her teeth as a young lawyer by successfully suing the California state government for violating the federal Clean Air Act. She has long since become an insider, running the most powerful state environmental agency in the country, California’s Air Resources Board.
Ms. Nichols — chosen by a Republican governor and kept on by the Democrat who succeeded him — said that when her agency set out to create a carbon market, her European counterparts were candid in advising the state how not to repeat their mistakes. “It was an act of great generosity on their part,” she said.
California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, signed in 2006 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, set a goal of lowering California’s greenhouse gases in 2020 to the 1990 level, a cut of 28 percent from the level they had been expected to reach in 2020 without the law.
Even after it was signed, the law was the subject of political and legal battles, with oil companies and other polluters fighting to overturn it. When voters were asked whether they wanted the state to tackle global warming in 2010, they voted 62 percent to 38 percent to move forward with the law, which requires more efficient cars, more renewable power on the state’s electric grid and many other steps. A centerpiece was a provision capping emissions from big polluters, including power generators and gasoline refiners, and setting up a permit-trading system.
California spent several years developing regulations, then began its cap-and-trade system in 2013. The project is taking hold gradually. California adopted rules shielding companies vulnerable to out-of-state competition, as well as residential electricity customers, from the full impact of the costs. In the early days, it is giving away many of the required carbon permits for free to ease companies into the system.
Nonetheless, at just over $11 a ton, the carbon price in California is now the highest in any cap-and-trade market, 60 percent above the price in Europe.
In setting up the market, California took measures to prevent the wild price gyrations seen in Europe. The state spent years getting accurate emissions data, for instance. And it established de facto floor and ceiling prices for its permits. The price so far has been highly predictable, trading in a range from $11 to $14 a ton.
As part of its plan, the state decided to allow emission-lowering projects in sectors not covered by the cap-and-trade system, such as forestry and farming. These “offset projects,” which can be located anywhere in the United States, are subject to strict auditing. The projects create credits that can be sold in the California market.
New companies have sprung up to serve as middlemen, helping farmers, forest owners and others set up eligible offset projects. One of those companies, TerraPass of San Francisco, matched the Pagel dairy farm in Wisconsin with California’s money.
John T. Pagel, the owner, said that he had thought for several years about installing a system to reduce odors and capture methane emissions from the manure of thousands of cows. But he could not figure out how to make the economics work. “It’s the right thing to do, but it has to support itself, too,” Mr. Pagel said.
Then he met a TerraPass representative at an agricultural fair several years ago and learned he could receive payments totaling tens of thousands of dollars a year.
On a tour of his farm near Kewaunee, Mr. Pagel proudly showed off the gear. A 20-cylinder Caterpillar engine, powered by methane from cow manure, throbbed in a large building behind his barns. As it turned a generator, it was pumping enough renewable power into the local electric grid to supply about 1,200 homes.
“I love that thing!” Mr. Pagel said.
One of his sons, Bryan, described meticulous oversight from California, including instruments that send a stream of data back to TerraPass headquarters to verify that the system is working properly. Otherwise, said Peter Freed, a former TerraPass employee who helped set up the deal, the state might disallow the carbon credits. “The California system doesn’t have a real tolerance for error,” he said.
Still, it will not be clear for years how successful the state’s carbon market has been in lowering emissions, or in spurring investment in clean energy. In the meantime, the Obama administration must decide how hard to push other states toward copying California’s program.
“What’s good for California, and what others will ultimately look to, is success,” said Richard Corey, chief executive of the Air Resources Board. “The ultimate test of success is going to be: Did it work?”
Questioning Cap and Trade
Some environmental groups and academics have never reconciled themselves to the idea of a market in pollution rights, and Europe’s problems have heightened their doubts. So far, they point out, global emissions are still rising.
“I would throw the markets out and start over with something different,” said Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me. “I think we can’t be sidetracked by playing around with a market, because this objective is so important, so pressing and so difficult.”
Economists and analysts who support cap and trade say they are confident the problems can be worked out, and they believe California is in the process of proving it. The key issue now, they say, is whether governments that adopt these systems will tighten the emissions caps, driving up carbon prices — and do it soon enough to make a real dent in global warming.
A second carbon market operating in the United States shows that the gradual lowering of emissions targets can have an impact. That system, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, started with far more modest goals than California’s, covering a smaller segment of the economy, and for much of its history carbon prices were below $2 a ton.
But the system has worked smoothly for several years, generating $1.7 billion that nine state governments in the Northeast have used largely to support clean-energy projects. Those investments, as well as utilities’ switch to cleaner natural gas, have sharply reduced carbon emissions in the region.
Recently, the nine states decided to cut their emissions cap by 45 percent and to let carbon prices rise. They have nearly doubled, to $4 a ton, and the revisions are expected to spur still more clean-energy investment.
Some experts believe that in the long run, carbon markets will make a substantial contribution only if they can be tied together across political boundaries. That would allow polluters to search the world for the cheapest ways of cutting emissions.
To a limited extent, such networking has already begun. Europe has allowed billions to flow abroad to developing countries, underwriting projects that have, for example, helped poor families switch to more efficient coal-burning stoves. California and Quebec have tied their markets together, and trading between them began early this year.
The world’s biggest carbon polluter, China, has begun experimenting with markets in seven cities and provinces, with a view toward forming a national carbon market this decade. Both California and Europe are tentatively speaking to the Chinese about future linkages.
As such developments take hold, the once unthinkable has begun to seem plausible, if by no means inevitable: a linked global carbon price high enough to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“We might be witnessing the birth of a new system, without quite realizing it,” said Glen P. Peters, a climate researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. “When you think of all these bottom-up initiatives around the world, maybe we are living through the transformation right now.”
Experts who support cap and trade contend that a market mechanism can reach more deeply into the economy than any other approach, changing the behavior even of people and companies that might not necessarily care about global warming.
The Wisconsin dairymen perhaps serve as an example of that.
Even as the methane-powered generator roared on his property, John T. Pagel said he was not convinced that the climatic changes happening in the United States were a result of human emissions. He suspects they might be part of a natural cycle. But with Californians dangling cash in exchange for his willingness to cut emissions, he jumped at the chance to build his digester.
“We are doing exactly what they asked us to do to get paid to reduce carbon,” Mr. Pagel said. “If somebody else believes in it enough to put up the money, that’s all I need to know.”
Reporting was contributed by Mark Scott from London, Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong, and Felicity Barringer from San Francisco.
As the Climate Changes, So Does the Language
Climate change has created its own vocabulary of concepts and institutions. Here are a few of the terms that often come up in discussions of the problem and its proposed solutions.
Carbon market: A financial market where government-issued permits that regulate greenhouse-gas emissions are traded as a commodity.
Cap and trade: A government-created system to restrict emissions by imposing a limit, or cap, on the amount of pollution that can be spewed into the atmosphere by certain industries. The government issues permits or carbon allowances to industries for the amount of greenhouse gases they are allowed to emit, then gradually reduces the cap and the number of permits, providing a financial incentive for those companies to pollute less. Companies that need fewer permits can trade with those that need more permits on a financial commodities market, with the price driven by supply and demand. The higher the price of the permits, the greater the incentive to reduce emissions.
Greenhouse gas: A type of pollutant that scientists say contributes to global warming. The primary pollutant is carbon dioxide, but there is also methane, nitrous oxide and many refrigerants.
Carbon allowances: Government-issued permits to industries that allow them to pollute up to a certain limit.
Carbon offsets: Projects that lower carbon emissions in nonregulated industries, such as forestry or farming. These projects produce “offset credits” that can be traded on the carbon market and used by polluters to comply with emissions limits. Governments usually set limits on how many of these types of credits polluters can use.
Carbon price: The cost to industries or companies for each ton of greenhouse gas that is emitted in a given period. The cost can be established directly by the government, in the form of a tax or a set price for permits, or indirectly through carbon markets, where permits are traded freely and supply and demand sets the price.
Carbon pricing: A system that requires polluters to pay for their carbon emissions.
Pollution rights: Permission given by a government to an industry or company to pollute up to a certain controlled level. Such a system leaves it up to the company or industry to figure out the best way to stay within the limit.
Emissions Trading System: A financial market created by the European Union to trade the carbon allowances issued to industries to control carbon emissions. The system has been in effect since 2005 and covers about 11,000 power plants, industrial facilities and airlines in 31 countries.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: A body of scientists and other experts appointed by the United Nations to periodically assess and issue reports about the status and impact of climate change on the planet.
National Climate Assessment: A report issued periodically by the federal government and prepared by a panel of scientists and other experts, including representatives of fossil-fuel companies, to assess the status and impact of climate change on the United States.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative: A cap-and-trade system limiting emissions in nine states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. The system has raised $1.7 billion for the governments, which have mostly put the money back into clean-energy projects.
Norway Moves In to Guard Oil Rig From Greenpeace
MAY 30, 2014
OSLO — Norway’s Coast Guard on Friday evening towed away a Greenpeace ship that tried to block a Norwegian company’s rig from drilling the world’s most northerly oil well, in the Barents Sea, the environmental group said.
Oil drillers from Norway are moving farther north as fields to the south are depleted and as the Arctic ice retreats, opening areas that were previously inaccessible. American estimates suggest that the Arctic may hold 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas.
“The Norwegian Coast Guard tonight boarded the Greenpeace ship Esperanza outside of the country’s territorial waters to end a high-profile and perfectly legal protest against Arctic oil drilling,” Greenpeace said in an emailed statement on Friday.
The group said two groups of officers boarded the ship and took control after the Greenpeace crew refused to leave.
“Coast guard tows Esperanza away from our legal and peaceful action,” Norway’s Greenpeace said on its Twitter feed about 30 minutes later.
The Norwegian news media reported that the police had confirmed the coast guard’s action.
The government has declared the area around the drilling site a safety zone, allowing it to remove the Greenpeace ship. The group appealed the decision, but on Friday the Ministry of Climate and Environment rejected Greenpeace’s appeal to stop the drilling, giving the company, Statoil, permission to proceed, the ministry’s spokesman said.
Greenpeace had argued that Statoil’s drilling plans posed a threat to Bear Island, an uninhabited wildlife sanctuary that is home to rare species, including polar bears, because an oil spill would be nearly impossible to clean up in the Arctic because of the harsh conditions.
Statoil rejected the claim, saying there was a very low risk of an oil spill, and an extremely low risk of any spillage reaching Bear Island, about 105 miles from the drilling site.
“Our top priority is to have safe operations without any harm to people or the environment,” said Irene Rummelhoff, Statoil’s senior vice president for exploration on the Norwegian continental shelf.
On Thursday, the Norwegian police removed seven Greenpeace protesters from Transocean’s Spitsbergen rig, which had just arrived at the drilling site.
The protesters removed from the rig — including activists from Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Philippines and Sweden — were released without being charged.
Statoil said delays to the start of drilling cost the company about $1.26 million per day.
This summer, Statoil plans to drill three wells in the region, about 185 miles from the mainland.
Military leaders: Climate strategy vital, not a political game
Friday, May 30, 2014 6:04 EDT
USAF Academy Chapel (CNA)
A panel of extraordinary military leaders—16 men and women generals and admirals, including prior commanders, commandants, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—came to a pretty devastating conclusion recently about climate strategy.
The Military Advisory Board of the Center for Naval Analyses, a 70-year-old federally funded think tank, says that current actions by the United States and the international community are not sufficient for us to adapt to destabilization from climate change.
Climate change images (CNA)In particular, the general officer retirees comprising the panel refer to events projected by recent reports like the IPCC Fifth Assessment, the National Climate Assessment, and World Bank, American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Climatic Data Center, and National Research Council evaluations. However, they call out these impacts from the unique perspective of national security. And their climate strategy is neither naive nor limited to the military environment.
“Strengthening resilience to climate impacts already locked into the system is critical.” This will reduce long-term risk only under one condition: if actionable agreements on ways to stabilize climate change accompany these improvements. Security ramifications of global climate change should be catalyzing cooperation and change, the panelists say. Instead, they find climate change accelerating instability in vulnerable areas of the world and worsening conflicts there. They regret growing public inattention:
“Concern over the potential for climate change impacts on our national security—regardless of the cause—has diminished as a national issue, and politically charged debate has silenced sound public discourse. As members of the MAB we believe that congressional action is warranted—and it is needed now. Neither the DOD, nor any other agency, can act alone to address the impacts of climate change.”
The military panel sees rapid population growth, especially in coastal and urban areas, and complex changes in global security conditions as adding strategic security risks. “When it comes to thinking about the impacts of climate change,” they say, “we must guard against a failure of imagination.”
Arctic open for development (CNA)The panel highlights the accelerated melting of “old ice” in the Arctic—probably because that region represents areas of disputed jurisdiction and the most imminent challenges in terms of climate strategy. Melting makes the Arctic more accessible to a wide variety of human activities, including shipping, resource extraction, fisheries, tourism, and other commerce. This activity level and the concomitant impacts will only accelerate in the coming decades. Neither the US nor the international community is prepared for the pace of change in the Arctic, the panel concludes.
Projected climate change impacts within our own borders will also encumber homeland security. Of particular concern are climate impacts to American military, infrastructure, economic, and social support systems.
Naval exercise (CNA)Military. Projected impacts of climate change may be detrimental to military readiness, strain base resilience both at home and abroad, and limit our responsiveness to future demands.
Infrastructure. Projected climate change can harm the physical components of our national critical infrastructure and limit their capacities.
Economic. Climate change will threaten major sections of the U.S. economy.
Social. Impacts of climate change will affect major sections of our society and stress social support systems such as first responders.
Armed Forces facility construction at night (CNA)
The panel states emphatically that concerns over the potential impacts of changing climate can bring diverse stakeholders and communities together to find effective solutions. “Cooperation will be especially important in an era in which military budgets, like many others across government, will be severely constrained. Planning for the future of America’s military must factor in both the limitations on readiness accompanying climate changes and the profusion of demands for military support resulting from climate and weather–related conditions and events.”
The military leaders offer some strong recommendations for immediate and sustained action:
To lower our national security risks, the United States should take a global leadership role in preparing for the projected impacts of climate change.
Supported by National Intelligence Estimates, the U.S. military’s combatant commanders should factor in impacts of projected climate change across their full spectrum of planning and operations.
The US should accelerate and consolidate efforts to prepare for increased access and military operations in the Arctic.
Climate adaptation planners should consider the water-food-energy nexus in military climate strategy to ensure comprehensive decisionmaking.
The projected impacts of climate change should be integrated fully into Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Protection Plan and Strategic National Risk Assessment.
Navy solar PV and parking lot (CNA)In addition to comprehensively assessing impacts on mission and operational resilience, Defense should develop, fund, and implement plans to adapt, including developing metrics for measuring impacts and resilience.
The Department of Defense should place a greater emphasis on the projected impacts of climate change on both DOD facilities and associated community infrastructures.
Hampton Roads, Virginia, case study(CNA)And they bluntly condemn political and bureaucratic interference:
“While the causes of climate change and its impacts continue to be argued or ignored in our nation, the linkage between changes in our climate and national security has been obscured. Political concerns and budgetary limitations cannot be allowed to dominate what is essentially a salient national security concern for our nation. Our Congress, the administration, and all who are charged with planning and assuring our security should take up the challenge of confronting the coming changes to our environment.”
The age of climate warfare is here. The military-industrial complex is ready. Are you?
By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian
Saturday, May 31, 2014 9:28 EDT
During his speech at West Point Military Academy earlier this week, President Barack Obama described climate change as a “creeping national security crisis” that will require the armed forces to “respond to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food.”
The speech emphasised that US foreign policy in the 21st century is increasingly being honed in recognition of heightened risks of social, political and economic upheaval around the world due the impacts of global warming.
A more detailed insight into US military planning could be seen in the report published a couple of weeks earlier by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Military Advisory Board, written and endorsed by a dozen or so senior retired US generals. Describing climate change as a not just a “threat multiplier,” but now – even worse – a “catalyst for conflict”, the study concluded that environmental impacts from climate change in coming decades:
“…. will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
To be sure, the link between climate change and the risk of violence is supported by many independent studies. No wonder, reports NBC News citing various former and active US officials, the Pentagon has long been mapping out strategies “to protect US interests in the aftermath of massive floods, water shortages and famines that are expected to hit and decimate unstable nations.”
But the era of climate warfare is not laying in wait, in some far-flung distant future. It has already begun, and it is accelerating – faster than most predicted. Pentagon officials and the CNA’s new study point to the Arab Spring upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa as a prime example.
As I’ve argued previously, violence and unrest in Syria and Egypt can be linked not just to the regional impacts of climate change in terms of water scarcity and food production, but also their complex interconnections with domestic oil and gas scarcity, neoliberal austerity, rampant inequality, endemic corruption, and massive political repression.
Such cases show that climate change in itself does not drive conflict – but the way in which climate change interacts with multiple related factors like declining oil production, food prices, and overlapping political, cultural and economic processes is already generating wild cards that repressive states are ill-equipped to deal with. In that context, such states resort to the thing they do best in an increasingly uncertain world: more repression.
As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned in its latest climate impacts assessment, though, more repression just makes things even worse, triggering a vicious cycle of increasing vulnerabilty to climate destabilisation.
A new study accepted for publication in the July issue of the American Meteorological Society’s journal Weather, Climate, and Society, underscores the role of climate change and drought in Syria’s ongoing civil war, which by some accounts has taken the lives of over 150,000 people.
The research paper by Dr Peter Gleick demonstrates clearly that the Syrian conflict is not just a climate war, or a resource war, but a water war. Between 2006 and 2011, the country suffered the worst long-term drought and the most severe set of crop failures in recorded history.
This was compounded by water mismanagement and economic deterioration which, in turn, led to further agricultural failures, population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. The resulting combination of urban unemployment, inequality and food insecurity, affecting over a million people, heightened sectarian tensions, and helped spark the social unrest that exploded into conflict.
But the destabilising role of climate change in Syria did not come to light solely with hindsight – US officials were aware for years of the risks. In his paper, Dr Gleick, who is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security – refers to leaked US diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Damascus to the State Department in Washington DC warning of the implications of the unprecedented drought. In Gleick’s words:
“That cable describes a briefing by FAO Syrian Representative Abdullah bin Yehia on drought impacts, which he described as a ‘perfect storm’ when combined with other economic and social pressure. Concerns expressed at that time also noted that the population displacements ‘could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play and undermine stability in Syria.’”
The response of the US national security apparatus (and that of its poodlish ally Britain) to such warnings is instructive. As I wrote in The Guardian last year, from 2009 through to 2011, US and UK special forces were training “Syrian opposition forces” with a view to elicit the “collapse” of Bashir al-Assad’s regime “from within.”
While that oil-soaked, blood-drenched geopolitical gamble appears to have failed, the US and regional partner Israel have accommodated themselves to what the New York Times described as a “horrific” status quo that is nevertheless “preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.” The west, adds America’s newspaper of record, “needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable.”
And this, indeed, is the problem: Viewed through the narrow, self-serving, systematically abused lens of ‘national security’ (which of course is the noble title of the American intelligence agency responsible for mass surveillance of entire populations), climate change becomes not a springboard for much-need social transformation to save the planet; instead it becomes the beaten-to-death horse justifying innovative new ways to save the profits of the few who run the planet.
Take a look at the CNA’s thoughts on climate change and Africa, for instance. Africa is “an increasingly important source of US oil and gas imports,” but is “suffering tension and stress resulting from weakgovernance” and “food and water shortages” to be exacerbated by climate change. The Pentagon’s new Africa Command thus “reflects Africa’s emerging strategic importance to the US.” A “worsening ofconditions” due to climate impacts “could prompt further US militaryengagement.”
So far the record hasn’t been spectacular. Consider how the US and UK have tacitly overseen the expansion of Islamist extremism across North Africa at the behest of client-regime-aka-terror-state Algeria - all to access its oil and gas; a short-sighted strategy that indirectly led to the recent Nigeria crisis.
The securitisation of climate change – and with it the entire planet – is not leading to meaningful transformative action to transform the social relations necessary to mitigate and prevent dangerous global warming. Instead, while climate change accelerates, the corporate-military-industrial complex accelerates profits. Indeed, the very companies most responsible for climate change are set to make a killing from its intensification.
“I think climate change is a real opportunity for the aerospace and defense industry,” said Lord Drayson, then British Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, in 2009.
One of the world’s largest defence contractors, Raytheon, agrees. In a briefing to the Carbon Disclosure Project last year, the corporation said that “expanded business opportunities will arise” as a result of “security concerns and their possible consequences,” due to the “effects of climate change” both at home and abroad in the form of “storms, droughts, and floods.”
This is what happens when one views the world, even with the best of intentions, through the twin lenses of military might and economic clout. We become incapable of recognising that the fundamental obstacle to addressing our global challenges is that we see enemies everywhere.
Climate change can create security risks, but to deal with them seriously, we need to stop projecting and recognise our own hand in the violence we’re so terrified of out there.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an international security journalist and academic. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @nafeezahmed.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Cashing in on apocalypse: Meet the people making a killing on climate change
The individuals most to blame for global warming are also the most likely to profit, says author McKenzie Funk.
For some, the global climate change crisis has been a call to action, the occasion for some of the biggest environmental movements of our time. For others, it’s a business opportunity.
In Greenland, that’s meant rushing to mine and drill the Arctic. For the Israelis, it’s been a chance to market their mastery of artificial snowmaking (look for their techniques at work during the Sochi Olympics). The Dutch, no strangers to floods, are farming out their services to create sea-level-rise barriers, including to a post-Sandy New York. Major financial institutions in New York and London have recognized increased preciousness of water rights and farmland, and have invested their money accordingly.
Journalist McKenzie Funk spent the past six years traveling the world to document “the booming business of global warming.” He spoke with Salon about the resulting book, “Windfall,” which makes the compelling case that the effects of climate change are even more unequal than we’ve been led to believe. This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Profiting off the very thing that’s bringing us down – in some ways, you make global warming sound a lot like the financial crisis. Do you see the people you interviewed as being as complicit as those guys were?
In the financial crisis, people were basically shorting the economy and they were sort of betting on failure, right? This is kind of the same idea with these people, so I think there is a little complicity — but maybe not so much more than the rest of us have by not doing much at all.
I think these people are a little bit less aware of how they fit in the system. There’s a little bit of an indirect connection between someone buying water rights, for instance, and that sort of slowly causing the emissions that will slowly destroy the planet. There’s a slightly weaker connection than there was for the people in the financial world, who were actually seeing that the housing market was in trouble and who were betting on that failure.
Except when you talk about, say, the oil companies in the Arctic — that’s obviously a clear case of a problem opening up an opportunity. The ice pulls back, you can drill, and then that leads to more people drilling for oil, which then causes more [global] warming.
You say, in the book, that in six years you never met a bad person. Do you really believe that none of these people are “villains” for profiting off climate change?
Well, it’s been interesting talking to people. I think it’s a little bit of a Rorschach test, this book. People bring their existing beliefs to it, and if some people are doing this or that they’re like “Oh my god, those assholes!”
I picked people who I thought were doing things that were not good. Absolutely. I didn’t go looking for heroes necessarily. But in almost every case I found real people behind them. People who had their own belief system, their own moral code, even if it was really different from my own. They often stuck to it and I think they thought they were good. I don’t think they were psychopaths.
I think they maybe were good, according to their own belief system.
For me, the takeaway was that there are a lot more bad ideas out there than there are bad people, and some of the sort of dogmas that people were sticking to were more dangerous than the intentions of the people themselves.
I went to South Sudan with a hedge fund manager who was partnering with the son of a rather scary general, and the manager’s idea was that we will help Africa by bringing in private investment. And we’ll partner with these generals who are feared by everybody else because they are the strongest guys, and power matters here. And by doing that, we will stabilize Africa. There might be some fighting, there might be some killing along the way, but this is the best way to get this done. He just believed it was that type of place. And you know, I didn’t totally buy it. He hated international aid for all the reasons a lot of people do: it spends a lot of money on land cruisers, it gives a lot of money to corrupt officials who are skimming off the top. I think that’s all true, but maybe it’s still worth doing. He was dead set against it. So yeah, there were some things that made me cringe.
The people who were trading vodka and grain for land…
I think that one, for me, was not an easy one to swallow. And I had a later conversation with the guy and pushed back. I think the difference there was that they really knew what they were getting into. They knew how dirtily the land had been acquired. They were part of the economic system that was helping push this. You know, helping these peasants maybe get a little grain for a year or two and give them some vodka and then making off with their land — I thought that was pretty bad, but I didn’t necessarily think the people themselves were evil. I just think they didn’t fully step back and consider what was going on.
In the same vein, it feels like the people who end up doing good, like the ones building storm barriers, are in it for self-interest first.
Yes. I’ve known a lot of people over the years, humanitarian types, who are really into their issue, and they’re doing good, but they’re really self-congratulatory for it. They’re doing good because it does something for their ego or it helps them. That’s not their only reason. But I think that’s true for all of us. We have complicated reasons for doing things and we tell ourselves, “I’m doing this for good reason,” when it’s actually just sometimes to stroke our own ego or to make money.
That seems like a spectrum. Like, the seawall builders — of course, I hope they come up with some good designs. Even these guys who are growing these genetically modified mosquitoes and releasing them in clouds over the Caribbean, and perhaps Florida down the line. I think they’re very well-meaning. Oxitec, that company in particular, I think, is not truly capitalistic. I think they want to do relatively good things. There might be a couple broken eggs along the way but they want to stop dengue fever.
The main thing was just spending a lot of time with these people who I was not expecting to like very much or think were that great. By and large they were fine. They were just people.
So from what you’ve seen, how much of this is still a fringe industry, and how much are people really profiting off climate change? I did just see a news story about how the Arctic’s getting its own shipping codes, because the melting ice has opened it up to boats. So not to be crass, but it does seem like more opportunities are sort of opening. Is that something that you’re seeing?
It’s the Arctic especially where you’re really seeing this shift toward opportunism. I think that’s because the physical impacts of climate change are simply more visible there. It’s warming twice as quickly, and as the ice is pulling back, it’s really tangible and it’s really changing things now. The rest is happening not quite as quickly — there are obviously droughts everywhere, including the one in California, but for those the signal and the noise are a little harder to decipher, still, where the Arctic is just so obvious.
So as I think I mentioned in the book, there was a huge jump of water investment around 2007, after the IPCC report came out and after”An Inconvenient Truth.” There were all these new mutual funds and different investment schemes involving water. Some of them crashed and burned; some are still going. So that’s happening.
The sea-level rise stuff, well, technologies that deal with that are still pretty nascent and investment there I think is still pretty much just the Dutch. They’ve been in this a long time and have a lot of expertise to export to the rest of the world. On a New York finance level, or London finance level, I still think the large portion of the money is going toward clean energy. It’s going toward mitigation and trying to stop climate change and not toward betting on failure. It’s just that I saw some people are starting to hedge their bets — they’re starting to do both.
So, is there money to be made in green energy? Your book made it seem, pessimistically, like we might be past that, or that the people who have the money and smarts to invest in this sort of thing have decided that climate change is inevitable by now.
I actually see some hope with regard to that. Investment in the solar industry has been way up in recent months. And climate change is one of those thing where it’s not like we can flip a switch and either have it or avert it. It’s going to be a scale. We can have it be kind of bad — as we’re already pretty much on the road to dealing with some pretty negative impacts of climate change — but the longer we wait to do anything, the worse it’ll get. As an investor I think you’ll notice that. I think investors will see that this isn’t going to go away; people are going to pay more and more attention because the impacts are becoming more visible. And I think that will push people toward green energy. It’s just a question of whether it’s quick enough, given the lags in the system, to actually avert any real crisis. I don’t know the answer to that part. But I don’t think that solar is dead just because people are betting on failure; I think that people are betting on failure, they’re going to bet on success, and they are going to do them both at the same time. They’ll try to make money on whichever future turns out.
Can you make the argument that the same countries that most contributed to bringing about climate change are the same ones that are most likely to profit?
That to me was one of the most important things I learned in reporting this. I came away from it not necessarily thinking the individual people were villainous, but recognizing the systemic problems: in the West, we’re the ones that emitted the most carbon and now we’re the ones most poised to profit. Or at least the most poised to be able to protect ourselves from the impacts of climate change. And so you see this disconnect, where in the far north climate change might actually just be an opportunity for certain industries and people might get richer. Greenland, for example, sees this great opportunity in climate change. And then you get down to the great middle of the planet, and those are people that emitted very little carbon and are going to get the absolute worst of the impacts. So it’s sort of exacerbating all the existing imbalances in the world all the more.
It adds a complicating layer to that debate over responsibility, like what happened at the climate talks over the Philippines’ typhoon.
I think that actually matters a lot for dealing with this problem. It’s us and the other wealthy parts of the world understanding that we’re not going to get it as bad. If we are going to get rich off it, I think that sort of raises the moral stakes. It means that we’re not all in this together. We’re kind of screwing over other parts of the world if we don’t take action. So yeah, “the rich are going to get richer” is a good takeaway.
So you argue that, so far as fighting climate change goes, appealing to self-interest doesn’t work. Do you have any insights about how we can make people care more?
I don’t think self-interest is useless. I don’t think capitalism is necessarily a failure in all cases. It’s just this idea that we can use the market – that if we can just get people scared enough about climate change, and they get so scared that they then realize they need to stop emitting because of self-interest, and that will fix the problem — I just don’t think that whole scenario works. Not when the people who are emitting the most are the least likely to get hit by climate change. So that’s what I mean by self-interest running into limits.
What could go in its place? I think a lot of people do a lot of things for reasons that aren’t actually for their economic benefit or even for their direct benefit. To talk about South Sudan again, that was a country championed by American evangelicals who wanted to do good for another part of the world. You see a lot of things going on in the world that we do totally out of empathy. Aid that goes to the Philippines isn’t necessarily because we think there is going to be some spillover to us; it’s because something bad happened there and we want to help.
In this country we talk about, Is there a market case for it? Is Amtrak making enough money to justify itself? Does the Post Office make enough money to justify itself? In our day-to-day lives we measure so many things not based on money, and I’m hoping that people, once they understand the moral stakes, will take a more moral stance on climate change. Not because they’ve been bad, but because they might actually care about what happens to people far away.
I’m not particularly hopeful that that will happen quickly, but I don’t think that it’s impossible to think that people care, that empathy does exist. And I think that as the world globalizes, those faraway places that are going to get hit more are in some ways nearer, thanks to the Internet, thanks to blanket coverage on TV. We cared about the revolution in Egypt, for instance. That wasn’t pure self-interest. I think people identified with the protestors in Tahrir Square.
So there is still cause to be optimistic?
Somewhat. I’m not optimistic, really, about that stuff. But I think people dismiss it automatically and think there always has to be a market case for things, and if that’s what we go into with climate change, I’m frankly worried. I’m not sure we’re ever going to get scared enough to do anything about it.