WHO says MERS virus death toll hits 33
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 14, 2013 7:18 EDT
The global death toll from the SARS-like virus MERS has risen to 33, after two new fatalities in Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
Spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the Saudi health ministry had informed the UN agency of three new laboratory-confirmed cases, one of them fatal, and the death of a patient already diagnosed with the disease.
“Globally, from September 2012 to date, WHO has been informed of a total of 58 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including 33 deaths,” Chaib told reporters.
Until last month, the disease was known simply as novel coronavirus, before being renamed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, as cases initiated in that region.
There have now been 44 confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia, 28 of them fatal, according to WHO figures.
WHO logs cases by country of infection, rather than of death, and its Saudi toll includes one individual who died in Britain.
One person has died in France after being infected in Dubai, and a patient died in Munich, Germany who was transferred there after first being treated in Abu Dhabi.
There have also been two cases in Jordan, both of them fatal. Qatar has seen two, with those patients treated in Britain and Germany.
Two patients caught the disease in Britain from a person who had been to the Middle East, one of whom died.
Tunisia has seen two non-fatal cases and Italy two — one of whom caught the virus in Jordan and gave it to a contact in Italy.
France has recorded one infection, a man who is thought to have caught the disease while sharing a hospital room with the deceased patient who had got it in Dubai.
The virus is a member of the coronavirus family, which includes the pathogen that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS sparked global panic in 2003 after it jumped to humans from animals in Asia and killed 800 people.
Like SARS, MERS appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing trouble. But it differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.
Health officials have expressed concern about the high proportion of deaths relative to cases, warning that MERS could spark a new global crisis if it mutates into a form that spreads more easily.
Al Gore says Obama must veto 'atrocity' of Keystone XL tar sands pipeline
Former vice-president says oil pipeline is 'really a losing proposition' and demands climate plan promised at inauguration
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 15 June 2013 16.01 BST
Al Gore has called on Barack Obama to veto the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, describing it as "an atrocity".
The former vice-president said in an interview on Friday that he hoped Obama would follow the example of British Columbia, which last week rejected a similar pipeline project, and shut down the Keystone XL.
"I certainly hope that he will veto that now that the Canadians have publicly concluded that it is not safe to take a pipeline across British Columbia to ports on the Pacific," he told the Guardian. "I really can't imagine that our country would say: 'Oh well. Take it right over parts of the Ogallala aquifer', our largest and most important source of ground water in the US. It's really a losing proposition."
Proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline The proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline takes it across the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies ground water for drinking and irrigation
Campaigners have cast Keystone XL as the most important decision of Obama' presidency. The State Department, which has say over the project because it crosses the US-Canadian border, is to announce its decision later this year.
But Gore said an even larger environmental decision loomed for Obama next month. The White House has indicated Obama could offer a long-awaited climate plan, the first concrete proposals since his inauguration in January when the president suggested it was a religious and patriotic duty to deal with the challenge
"This whole project [Keystone XL] is an atrocity but it is even more important for him to regulate carbon dioxide emissions," Gore said. He urged Obama to use his powers as president to cut carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants – the biggest since source of global warming pollution.
"He doesn't need Congress to do anything," Gore said. "If it hurts the feelings of people in the carbon polluting industries that's too bad."
Gore was speaking from Istanbul, where he will soon lead a three-day training session on climate change for a global group of some 600 activists. Since the 2000 election, when Gore won the popular vote but lost the White House to George Bush, he has turned his public life over to action on climate change. The climaterealityproject.org gathering in Istanbul will be the 22nd time Gore has presented his regularly updated slide show on the science behind climate change to a group of global activists.
He planning an even bigger training exercise in Chicago at the end of July, where he hopes to deliver his new slide show to more than 1,000 activists. It will be the largest such session since Gore adopted education and training of climate-change activists as one of the main concerns of his post-political career, and the first such exercise in the American mid-west.
The timing is critical – in climate terms, with atmospheric carbon dioxide reaching a new milestone of 400ppm – and on the political agenda, Gore argued. Last year's extreme weather – including superstorm Sandy and the punishing drought across the mid-west – has exposed the real-time costs of climate change. Extreme events inflicted $110bn in damages last year, according to the Obama administration.
Gore said he was also encouraged by the rise in climate activism by Democrats in Congress, singling out the Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has made weekly speeches on climate change. "The conversation on climate is evolving rapidly partly because mother nature has joined the conversation and has a powerful voice, Gore said.
He said he believed those events were steadily moving public opinion on climate change to an historic tipping point – similar to the shift of opinion on such once controversial issues as civil rights and same sex marriage.
"People have the impression that is a Sisphyean task right now but times are changing," Gore said. "Just because the opponents of doing anything on global warming are trying to intimidate people to not even considering it, that is no reason for the rest of us to conclude that it is impossible. I don't think that it's impossible."
Gore said there was no way, in his view, to achieve climate action without continuing to keep the topic on the public agenda.
"I think we have to engage, difficult as it can seem to be, and build a critical mass to get beyond the critical tipping point," he said. "That is what it is all about. We have to win the conversation and change the law and put a price on carbon."
June 15, 2013
China Sets New Rules Aimed at Curbing Air Pollution
By KEITH BRADSHER
HONG KONG — China’s cabinet has adopted 10 measures to improve air quality in the latest move aimed at responding to the dense smog that has repeatedly enveloped Beijing and other major Chinese cities in recent years.
Many of the measures had previously been enacted by some cities, or were the subject of national experiments that had not yet received the imprimatur of the cabinet, which is known as the State Council. The measures, adopted Friday, were announced Saturday in state-controlled news media.
The newest and least-expected of them is a mandate that heavy polluters like coal-fired power plants and metal smelters must release detailed environmental information to the general public.
Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the best-known independent environmental advocacy groups in Beijing, said that 5,000 of the country’s biggest factories account for three-fifths of its industrial pollution, but that the public knows few details about their emissions.
“In China, the factories can just discharge without letting people know,” he said. “If we can bring them under public supervision, it would make a big difference.”
Still, Mr. Ma cautioned that while national leaders may want a cleaner environment, enforcing tough pollution regulations at the local level could prove difficult.
The cabinet also ordered that heavy polluters reduce their emissions for each renminbi or unit of economic output by 30 percent by the end of 2017. But if the economy grows 7 percent or more a year, as forecast, the decrease in total pollution would be modest.
During the past two years, China has seen a rapid growth of environmental protests. Crowds numbering in the thousands have taken to the streets in coastal cities including Dalian, Tianjin and Xiamen to prevent the construction or continued operation of large chemical plants.
Coal-fired power plants have been blocked in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Hainan. And rock-throwing mobs forced the cancellation of a copper smelter a year ago in Shifang, a town near Chengdu in Sichuan Province, in western China.
The new 10-part program calls for greater cooperation among cities and provinces. For example, Beijing is trying to reduce its consumption of heavily polluting coal, but the nearby city of Tianjin and adjacent Hebei Province are expanding their already huge coal-dependent industries in sectors like petrochemicals and steel.
The cabinet’s action includes some measures already taken by very large municipal governments like Beijing and Shanghai. Both cities already require much cleaner gasoline and diesel, so that cars and trucks emit less tailpipe pollution, and those policies are now supposed to be applied nationwide.
The State Council also called for more cities to prepare emergency response plans for heavy pollution, including traffic restrictions and limits on local industries.
In addition, it ordered heavier fines for polluters and stricter requirements for environmental impact statements. Concerns about street protests over environmental disputes had already led the cabinet to announce last November that it would require a “social risk assessment” before allowing major industrial projects to proceed.
Corporate leaders say that the Chinese public has rapidly become more prone to question the wisdom of big investment projects, particularly in the chemical industry.
“This is quite fast, how this reaction has stepped up, particularly in China,” Martin Brudermüller, the vice chairman of the German chemicals giant BASF, said in a meeting with reporters in Hong Kong on June 4.
With the protests, he later added, “China becomes a little bit more like the West.”
Fighting the poachers on Africa's thin green line
Underpaid, ill-equipped and outnumbered, park rangers fight a one-sided war against vicious gangs of poachers. Hundreds have been murdered in the defence of endangered wildlife, and their deaths leave their own families in jeopardy. David Smith reports from Zambia
The Observer, Saturday 15 June 2013 17.00 BST
Esnart Paundi rarely smiled for the camera. One old photo shows her wearing her ranger's camouflage fatigues and a pensive expression as she crouches beside a mound of bushmeat and three despondent poachers, one handcuffed. In another she is in a black leather jacket at her sister's home, leaning against the TV with a baby under her arm and sad eyes.
Death stalked Esnart. When her mother died young, she stepped in to help raise her siblings and become the family breadwinner. One of her five brothers and two of her three sisters are dead. Twice married and twice widowed, she was a single mother of five children.
When death came to Esnart herself at the age of 38, it was sudden, brutal and senseless. She had caught two more poachers trying to smuggle butchered wildlife to Zambia's copper belt. One was hiding a machete and, though she tried to flee, he hunted her down and smashed her skull with it. Her orphaned children are now scattered among different homes. The state has done nothing to help them.
Esnart was one of the foot soldiers in what has been called the thin green line: park rangers faced with an unprecedented onslaught from vicious, well-armed criminal gangs in Africa and around the world. In the past decade at least 1,000 have paid with their lives for defending wild animals, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation, a charitable organisation which supports rangers in their work, and their families in the case of bereavement.
"Once you are deployed on patrol, you know for certain: I am going to war," says Liywali Akakulubelwa, 47, a senior intelligence and investigations officer at the Zambia Wildlife Authority. "You accept that is the nature of the job."
Respite is unlikely. Rangers are braced for an escalation in the "wildlife wars" – the increasing militarisation of the planet's most precious and fragile game reserves. The struggle is as ferocious as any in nature, but unlikely to be seen in a David Attenborough documentary.
In India, the foundation says, rangers have been buried alive in sawing pits by illegal timber poachers. In Colombia they are killed when dealing with drug cartels, land mines and militias. But Africa is probably the bloodiest battleground. Elephants and rhino are under siege as the black-market prices of ivory and horn rocket. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tormented by rebel militias, 183 rangers have been killed in just one national park over the past decade. Last year alone Kenya lost six rangers, including a pregnant woman who was ambushed and shot in the face, while in Chad's Zakouma national park five rangers were mown down by automatic weapons during their morning prayers.
And this is no even contest. Some poachers are former army soldiers who do not hesitate to kill animals or humans, and they come with powerful backers. Rangers are often older and underpaid and lack the equipment, resources and training to defend themselves in firefights. When they make the ultimate sacrifice, there is often no government assistance for their families, who face a life of poverty and destitution.
Zambia, a landlocked country generally seen as democratic, inoffensive and rich in wildlife, has suffered much down the years. Its rhino population was annihilated and most of its elephants wiped out in 1970s and 80s. Efforts to reintroduce and conserve the animals now mean the "big five" – buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino – as they are a tourist drawcard.
In the early 1990s Esnart decided to become a park ranger to defend these crown jewels. Liywali, who trained with her for two years, recalls: "She wanted our animals to be protected so young ones could come and see elephants and buffalos. She wanted young people to see our natural resources in this country. She wanted to stop the trade in wildlife game meat. This is where death found her."
Esnart became a ranger in 1995, bringing a crucial income to an otherwise impoverished family. With her mother dead, Esnart helped her father with parenting. Her brother Mawto Paundi, 33, a taxi driver, recalls: "I remember she insisted that I go to school, but I refused. I now regret passing up the opportunity. She was ready to sponsor me."
Many former colleagues of Esnart claim she was aware of the risks of the job, but never dwelled on them. Mawto, however, says that she confided in him: "There was a time when she wanted to change career, get some money and do something else. She wanted to do something with computers so she could be in the civil service. It was because of the danger of going on patrol in the bush. She was concerned about the risks involved. It was around that time she died. Of course I was concerned as a brother, knowing the dangers of the job and what had happened to others who did it. A lot of other rangers have died. But I appreciated what she did for wildlife conservation."
By 2009 Esnart was working under William Soko, a senior ranger in Rufunsa district, about 80km from the capital, Lusaka, and earning about 1,350 kwacha (£160) per month. "She was very cheerful and obedient," Soko recalls from behind his desk in a modest office. "She was a fine lady, ever-smiling, everybody's darling."
Esnart was the only woman among Soko's 20 wildlife police officers, as rangers are formally called. "She was proud to be a pioneer. I gave her challenges, like patrolling through the escarpment. I thought she would say: 'No, I can't go' – I was shocked she went. It definitely changed my perception of women, because I know some males who are afraid to go there. I wouldn't hesitate to employ another female ranger. I still think about Esnart very much. She died a very sad death. She didn't deserve this type of death."
Esnart died on 14 September 2010 in Kabwe in Zambia's Central Province. She was on a route where poachers were known to transport bushmeat. A small, light truck approached her roadblock, executed a U-turn and sped away. Esnart, who was unarmed, and two other officers with rifles gave pursuit on foot into the bush. They found the vehicle abandoned and followed some tyre marks that led to a pile of bushmeat and two poachers, whom they arrested. One of the rangers then left to look for transport.
"One of the suspects had a panga [machete] hidden," Soko continues. "He moved like lightning. He struck the male officer on the head and knocked him unconscious. That officer has never been the same since – you can see he is not right any more."
Esnart ran but the poacher gave pursuit and rained blows on her head until she was dead. Soko was called to collect her body. "I cried," the 51-year-old admits. "It was a gruesome sight. I left with that grief in me and went to look for the suspects' house at 3am, and if I had found them, they would be have been mincemeat to bury."
But the suspects had gone and, more than two years later, are still on the run. It is thought one was Congolese and may have returned home. Soko adds: "If they are in Zambia, they will be caught. You can run for 10 or 20 years, but if you shed human blood you get caught. I can never forgive them. They have to pay."
Soko took Esnart's body back to her home village, where her father, himself a former park ranger, was "understanding". The funeral brought a big crowd of mourners and there were songs, Bible readings and preaching. As is traditional, Esnart's colleagues fired their guns in salute to a fellow ranger.
But since then Esnart's family have received no financial compensation from the authorities she served. Soko, who is also chairman of the Game Rangers Association of Zambia, complains: "The government should have done a lot more because of the misery the children are subjected to. Their life simply collapses when they lose the breadwinner. She was a single mother and when she died everything went.
"I don't know what the government is thinking. What I do know is that they are silent. The Thin Green Line is the only organisation in the world to come to the aid of the children."
Rangers in Zambia, Africa and the world should not be abandoned by their governments, Soko argues. "It is a very dangerous job. Every year we have a death. It's nonstop. For as long as there are poachers, there are going to be deaths. If my daughters wanted to become rangers, I wouldn't allow them."
A short walk from Soko's office is the rudimentary house where Esnart lived, built of a reddish mudbrick, with a flimsy wooden door and a corrugated roof weighed down by rocks. It is surrounded by bare earth and dust. The faceless, unnamed poacher whose machete struck down Esnart also splintered a family. Her five children now live far apart in three separate towns in the care of various relatives.
The eldest, Anna Phiri, 17, is not so different from many teenagers: she enjoys going out and her favourite TV shows are Hannah Montana and Shake It Up. Her best subject at school is English, and she wants to be a journalist one day. "I wouldn't be a ranger because there is not enough security," she says.
Anna's father, Gawa Phiri, also a game ranger, died from meningitis in 2006. She lives with his sister, Martha Phiri, a primary school teacher, her husband Maxwell, an accountant, and their four children in eastern Lusaka. The approach road is dusty, bumpy, unpaved and fringed with rubbish. Outside the grey concrete-block house is the stench of raw sewage. Anna's bedroom has two double beds shared by four children. Dolls and teddy bears are strewn around the room. A green curtain is strung up by the window and the walls are pockmarked under a corrugated roof and naked lightbulb. A shoebox is perched on top of a wardrobe.
Barefoot and wearing a turquoise dress with white leggings, Anna rummages in a suitcase and produced a homemade photo album. It includes a picture of her mother with short hair, a blue T-shirt, light trousers and an unsmiling, careworn look. "I feel very bad when I look at it." Among her most precious possessions is a red and white dress that belonged to her mother. "It means a lot to me. I will wear it one day."
Recalling the day of her mother's funeral, Anna is tearful yet composed. "I was told by my aunt. It was very disturbing and shocking. My mother was very brave. I'm proud of her. I think about her a lot. It's very difficult now because I don't get to see my brothers and sisters often. I don't know how they are doing."
Across the city Esnart's son, George, 14, lives with his uncle, Mathews Phiri. "Mum didn't tell me much about the job," George mumbles shyly. "But I knew it was dangerous."
The long flat ROAD to Mumbwa, 135km from Lusaka, passes through a broiling marketplace selling farm produce, knock-off furniture and Manchester City football mugs. A sign for a traditional healer from Malawi promises penis enlargements and the magical return of runaway spouses. In Mumbwa is the simple house that Esnart bought but never occupied. It is now home to her siblings and three other children: the boys Annex, 12, and Chimunya, eight, and her adopted seven-year-old daughter Irene. Their father Annex, a polygamist who already had a wife when he met Esnart, died from an illness. Now the trio lives alongside her sister Abigail's two children.
There is electricity here and a digital TV and DVD player, but water must be fetched from an outside pump. Beyond a torn sheet in a doorway is the main bedroom, where foam oozes out of a split mattress, paint is cracked on the walls and a weathered mosquito net hangs limp. The family toilet is a dark pit in the ground in a ramshackle backyard shed.
Abigail, 31, is in charge of Esnart's estate and has kept her sister's ranger's uniform. "It reminds me of her because she used to wear it often," she says, sitting in a cramped, stuffy lounge with a fridge parked in the corner. "But I rarely look at it because it's painful."
She still feels bitterness towards the poachers whose actions that day continue to ripple through numerous lives. "I can't forgive them, because the impact of what they did is still being felt now. The main problem is that I'm the only sister looking after the kids, and I don't have a job. Sometimes I do piece work, but it might not suffice to look after the needs of the children. They miss their mother. I would like them all to be in one place, but I can't manage to keep all of them. They miss each other very much."
Another of Esnart's brothers, Muyeni Paundi, 22, a taxi driver, chips in: "The authorities should have done more. When the incident happened, she had no firearm and they had no handcuffs. They should also give financial support, especially for the kids. They were supposed to. Esnart's children need to be together for that brother and sister relationship."
A family friend wanders in, wearing the camouflage uniform of a wildlife police officer. Ellison Kanyembo, 47, had known Esnart since they were at training school in the 1990s. "We were tribal cousins," he recalls fondly. "She was good to me. We were like brother and sister, helping each other. She was courageous. She admired the job and was not frightened. She liked going in the field and seeing animals. She liked adventure in the wilderness. She liked cooking and she cooked fritters for me sometimes. I saw her three days before she died. It was as if she knew she was going to die. She said: 'Look after my children – this one, that one – I don't know if I'll come back.' It was like she was saying goodbye."
Kanyembo says that news of her death had a terrible impact on him: "It pained me spiritually, physically. There was that hurt in me."
Esnart's story chimes with those of many park rangers: gratitude for a job of any kind to feed and clothe numerous dependents, but low pay and the constant threat of a violent demise. In the absence of government support, her family was rescued by donations from the Thin Green Line Foundation.
What safety net, then, for other grieving spouses and children left to pick up the pieces? It is a question that corrodes the spirit of the Kalounga family back in Rufunsa where, down a bone-shaking dirt track, is a gate to the Lower Zambezi national park decorated with the skulls of buffalo, elephant and sable. Mathias Kalounga, 49, is among the rangers who patrols and camps there for unbroken stretches of 15 days. He has a wife and nine children aged from three to 22.
"I love keeping God's creation," he says. "I'm not afraid of anything. I have been shot at. We met some poachers and they started shooting and there was an exchange of fire. The poachers ran off and left their cooking equipment. I was not afraid at all."
But the danger weighs heavily upon his wife, Loyce. "It was close to the camp and we even heard the gunshots. I was worried that my husband might be killed and not make it home. He was outnumbered – three rangers against four poachers. I wish he did a different job, because this one is very dangerous. When I worry, I don't feel well."
If the worst happened to Mathias, Loyce, a housewife, would be left alone to fend for her children. "The authorities don't care about other people's lives," she muses. "We see what happens. Esnart was working for the government, but when she died the government did not look after the orphans. It's a big responsibility to feed my children and send them to school. When my husband dies, the government will do nothing to help me and my children. We will be in very big problems."
Even in life, the family endures deep hardship. Mathias and Loyce share the sole bed while their children sleep on the floor. There is no electricity or running water. Mathias earns just 1,700 kwacha (£201) per month. "It's very little, not enough to pay for the children to go to school. Some of them do and some don't."
When Zambia's vice-president, Guy Scott, was informed that Esnart's family had still not received any government support, he said that something had gone wrong and asked for her name so that it could be rectified.
One of the FIERCEST battlegrounds is also one of the world's most popular tourist destinations: South Africa, where on average a rhino is poached every 11 hours. Backed by international crime syndicates feeding a demand for horn in the Far East, poachers have been known to use helicopters, specialised silent tranquillisers, body armour, night-vision equipment and mercenaries experienced in rhino tracking.
Officials have vowed to "fight fire with fire" and deployed troops in the famed Kruger national park, where gun battles are increasingly common. Major-General Johan Jooste, who heads the joint military, police and game ranger operations, recently described the influx of poachers from Mozambique as an "insurgency" requiring a "counter- insurgency".
Wanda Mkutshulwa, managing executive of corporate services for South Africa national parks (SANParks), says: "Except for an accident between a ranger and a soldier who mistook each other for a suspected armed and aggressive poacher, there have been no fatalities of rangers in the Kruger national park related to suspected poaching in the past five years. This is something we live in fear of and, with the escalating incursions into the park and the increasing aggression of the suspects, it is only a matter of time before this happens.
"We are dealing with an enemy that has no rules and respects none, while the rangers are expected to first attempt arrest and can only shoot once they are shot at. The poachers are in control of time and place, because you never know where or when they will surface due to the size of the park – which is about half the size of Switzerland and bigger than Swaziland."
The rangers are the "forgotten victims" of the poaching war, according to Sean Willmore, an Australian-based conservationist, documentary maker and president of the International Ranger Federation. Willmore is the driving force behind the Thin Green Line Foundation, whose champions include Jane Goodall, the celebrated British primatologist. "Rangers are often outgunned, outnumbered and outresourced by illegal commercial poachers," Willmore says. "And, sadly, on a weekly basis, they are shot at, hacked to death and sometimes even tortured if they survive the bullets. I have many graphic and horrifying examples."
The foundation says it has given support to 80 widows and more than 550 orphans of rangers killed in action, but still has more than 900 widows waiting for help. Willmore adds: "With little or no compensation, many rangers' widows and children are often left destitute and below the poverty line. The children are often taken out of school with no source of income for the family. The poverty cycle for these families is set in motion. This is the thanks we give these rangers and their families for risking their lives for the animals we all care about."
Obama fails to use National Environmental Policy Act despite calls for climate change action
Sunday, June 16, 2013 10:33 EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama has vowed to tackle climate change in his second term, but so far has not acted to strengthen a tool that does not require backing from Congress – the National Environmental Policy Act.
NEPA, a statute that dates to the Nixon administration, calls on officials to weigh whether projects such as highways, dams or oil drilling could harm the environment.
While it does not have the power to block development, NEPA forces officials to consider the environment before approving federal projects, and the White House has proposed that climate change should rank high among those concerns.
In early 2010, the White House suggested it would make an update to NEPA that would require counting greenhouse gas emissions among the impacts worthy of a NEPA review. But those standards have been on ice ever since they were written.
“We are taking the time necessary to carefully consider all input from the public, stakeholders and federal agencies,” said Taryn Tuss, a spokeswoman for the White House Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), the steward for NEPA.
Although changes to NEPA don’t require White House review, several other cabinet agency rules have been held up by that process amid election-year politics and Republican complaints of costly over-regulation.
Democratic lawmakers have called on the White House to weigh climate change in proposals like the Keystone XL oil pipeline and coal export terminals planned for the Pacific Northwest.
Industry groups and Republicans, though, have warned Obama to keep NEPA out of the climate change debate.
Former White House officials say Obama must soon test the rule’s power to confront climate change if he wants to cement a legacy of trying to wean the nation off polluting fossil fuels.
“A president who wants to lead on climate change does not have many tools that do not involve Congress. One of them is NEPA,” said George Frampton, who led the CEQ in the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Several former U.S. officials said the White House is at least a year away from blessing a climate change component of NEPA – if such a move is taken at all.
“I would think any revision is a ways off,” said a former EPA official who dealt with NEPA issues.
Efforts by Congress to set mandatory limits on carbon emissions failed to pass in 2009 and 2010 amid intense partisan wrangling. Other administration pollution rules have also been challenged in the courts.
But with little hope of moving new comprehensive climate change legislation through Congress, the White House is running out of time to use its executive power to confront an issue that Obama has said requires urgent action.
“No one measure will halt climate change,” said Jessica Goad of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with ties to the White House.
“But this is certainly one modest step. And we are talking about rules that have been on the shelf for three years.”
The administration has recently announced some actions targeting climate change, including a deal with China to reduce HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
But it has given no sign it will finish the more controversial NEPA update, which could have an impact on some major energy projects.
Since it came on the books in 1970, NEPA has been used as a tool to scrutinize – and sometimes stall – big government developments.
And while environmentalists are eager to use the statute to consider the long-term impacts of climate change, industry groups worry the added layer could be crippling to projects.
“Let’s say you want to build a solar farm. Well, were those solar panels built in China using coal power? How far back do we trace these supposed impacts?” said Bill Kovacs, a senior energy adviser with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Republican lawmakers agree. In April, 33 senators signed a letter discouraging the White House from finalizing the standards, saying NEPA would be a way to regulate carbon emissions without congressional approval.
And some Democratic lawmakers do have big plans for NEPA.
The governors of Oregon and Washington want the White House to apply NEPA as it weighs whether to speak up against coal export terminals planned for the Pacific Northwest.
The statute should not only weigh the impact of exporting U.S. coal but how burning the fuel in furnaces overseas could worsen climate change, the governors argue.
While the NEPA rules remain unfinished, government agencies are coming up with different conclusions about what some controversial projects will mean for climate change.
A State Department review found that burning oil sands fuel would not substantially worsen climate change if the Keystone XL pipeline were permitted to cross the border from Canada, while the EPA found the impact to be significant.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the coal export terminals, has declined to weigh global impacts while local governors have pressed for such studies.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Kovacs says the White House is wise to move slowly as it considers retooling NEPA but former officials say there is no time for delay.
“Time is running out to do something meaningful that will have an effect in Obama’s second term,” Frampton said.
(Reporting by Patrick Rucker and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Walsh)
Small global warming rise would have ‘alarming’ impact: World Bank
Wednesday, June 19, 2013 6:43 EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Much of Bangkok could flood within the next two decades if global warming stays on its current trajectory, as sea levels rise and cyclones intensify, the World Bank said in a new report on Wednesday.
The flooding of 40 percent of the Thai capital was just one of dozens of negative effects the Washington-based World Bank warned would happen if the world grew warmer by just 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), which it said is likely to occur in the next 20 to 30 years under a “business-as-usual” scenario.
Under World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, the global development lender has launched a more aggressive stance to spur action on climate change. Kim has said it is impossible to tackle poverty without dealing with the effects of a warmer world.
The report builds on an earlier World Bank study released last November that shows the global impact of a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperatures by 2100.
“What this report does is give you a much more granular assessment of what the real experience … (is) going to be,” Rachel Kyte, the bank’s vice president for sustainable development, told reporters ahead of the report’s launch. “And in some ways it’s even more daunting.”
This report focused especially on the effect of higher temperatures on developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south and southeast Asia, where most of the world’s poorest people live.
Crops such as wheat, rice and maize have a hard time adapting to a warmer climate, potentially leaving 25 to 90 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa undernourished by the 2050s, according to the report’s projections.
Heat extremes will increase by several times in South Asia, with droughts likely to hit north-western India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and reduce available drinking water.
The World Bank also highlighted the impact of climate change on slums, as more people are displaced and move to the edges of cities, where they are often exposed to flooding and are more likely to feel the heat.
“This new report outlines an alarming scenario for the days and years ahead – what we could face in our lifetime,” Kim said in a statement. “Urgent action is needed to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to help countries prepare for a world of dramatic climate and weather extremes.”
The World Bank said it has doubled its spending on adaptation to climate change last year, to $4.6 billion, to help countries and cities figure out how best to deal with higher temperatures. It also loaned $7.1 billion to countries last year in projects that could help mitigate climate change.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov. Editing by Andre Grenon)
[Indian army soldiers rescue stranded villagers in a boat after floods triggered by heavy rains at Odhri village in Yamunanagar district of the northern Indian state of Haryana June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer]
June 20, 2013
Norway Opens Arctic Border Area to Oil Drilling
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
STOCKHOLM — Norway's Parliament has opened up a new area on the fringe of the Arctic Ocean to offshore oil drilling despite protests from opponents who fear catastrophic oil spills in the remote and icy region.
Most of the Norwegian sector of the Barents Sea, which the Nordic country shares with Russia, is already open to petroleum activities.
But environmentalists and some opposition lawmakers say the risk to Arctic sea ice is higher in a Switzerland-sized area straddling the Russian maritime border, and wanted to make parts of it off limits to oil and gas drilling.
Parliament sided with the government in a vote late Wednesday and opened the entire area to drilling, with the caveat that no activity can take place within 31 miles (50 kilometers) of the ice edge.
"This is a clear break in Norwegian policy," said Nils Harley Boisen, of the World Wildlife Fund. "And moving completely against all expert advice on what is safe operations."
In 2003, Arctic sea ice extended into the northern part of that area, he said.
Christian Democrat lawmaker Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, who opposed the move, said operations in icy waters are complicated, risky and potentially hazardous to sensitive Arctic ecosystems.
The government says the environmental risks will be managed carefully, noting that Norway doesn't allow drilling in areas covered by sea ice.
Norway has become one of the world's richest countries per capita thanks to exports from its offshore oil and gas industry. It's now moving its search into the Arctic region in a bid to offset declining production in the North Sea.
The slice of the Barents Sea that was opened by Parliament on Wednesday is in an area that was disputed with Russia until the countries signed a maritime border deal in 2010.
Ben Ayliffe, an Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace, said the move highlights the oil industry's creep toward the North Pole as climate change thaws the frozen region — estimated to hold up to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas.
However, he added that the Arctic oil rush seems to have lost steam with Shell cancelling drilling plans off Alaska this year, Conoco-Phillips suspending plans for Arctic drilling in 2014 and Statoil postponing plans to drill its northernmost well ever in the Barents Sea partly because it couldn't get a rig "winterized" in time.
06/20/2013 11:30 AM
Climate Expert von Storch: Why Is Global Warming Stagnating?
Climate experts have long predicted that temperatures would rise in parallel with greenhouse gas emissions. But, for 15 years, they haven't. In a SPIEGEL interview, meteorologist Hans von Storch discusses how this "puzzle" might force scientists to alter what could be "fundamentally wrong" models.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Storch, Germany has recently seen major flooding. Is global warming the culprit?
Storch: I'm not aware of any studies showing that floods happen more often today than in the past. I also just attended a hydrologists' conference in Koblenz, and none of the scientists there described such a finding.
SPIEGEL: But don't climate simulations for Germany's latitudes predict that, as temperatures rise, there will be less, not more, rain in the summers?
Storch: That only appears to be contradictory. We actually do expect there to be less total precipitation during the summer months. But there may be more extreme weather events, in which a great deal of rain falls from the sky within a short span of time. But since there has been only moderate global warming so far, climate change shouldn't be playing a major role in any case yet.
SPIEGEL: Would you say that people no longer reflexively attribute every severe weather event to global warming as much as they once did?
Storch: Yes, my impression is that there is less hysteria over the climate. There are certainly still people who almost ritualistically cry, "Stop thief! Climate change is at fault!" over any natural disaster. But people are now talking much more about the likely causes of flooding, such as land being paved over or the disappearance of natural flood zones -- and that's a good thing.
SPIEGEL: Will the greenhouse effect be an issue in the upcoming German parliamentary elections? Singer Marius Müller-Westernhagen is leading a celebrity initiative calling for the addition of climate protection as a national policy objective in the German constitution.
Storch: It's a strange idea. What state of the Earth's atmosphere do we want to protect, and in what way? And what might happen as a result? Are we going to declare war on China if the country emits too much CO2 into the air and thereby violates our constitution?
SPIEGEL: Yet it was climate researchers, with their apocalyptic warnings, who gave people these ideas in the first place.
Storch: Unfortunately, some scientists behave like preachers, delivering sermons to people. What this approach ignores is the fact that there are many threats in our world that must be weighed against one another. If I'm driving my car and find myself speeding toward an obstacle, I can't simple yank the wheel to the side without first checking to see if I'll instead be driving straight into a crowd of people. Climate researchers cannot and should not take this process of weighing different factors out of the hands of politics and society.
SPIEGEL: Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, outside Berlin, is currently Chancellor Angela Merkel's climate adviser. Why does she need one?
Storch: I've never been chancellor myself. But I do think it would be unwise of Merkel to listen to just a single scientist. Climate research is made up of far too many different voices for that. Personally, though, I don't believe the chancellor has delved deeply into the subject. If she had, she would know that there are other perspectives besides those held by her environmental policy administrators.
SPIEGEL: Just since the turn of the millennium, humanity has emitted another 400 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, yet temperatures haven't risen in nearly 15 years. What can explain this?
Storch: So far, no one has been able to provide a compelling answer to why climate change seems to be taking a break. We're facing a puzzle. Recent CO2 emissions have actually risen even more steeply than we feared. As a result, according to most climate models, we should have seen temperatures rise by around 0.25 degrees Celsius (0.45 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 10 years. That hasn't happened. In fact, the increase over the last 15 years was just 0.06 degrees Celsius (0.11 degrees Fahrenheit) -- a value very close to zero. This is a serious scientific problem that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will have to confront when it presents its next Assessment Report late next year.
SPIEGEL: Do the computer models with which physicists simulate the future climate ever show the sort of long standstill in temperature change that we're observing right now?
Storch: Yes, but only extremely rarely. At my institute, we analyzed how often such a 15-year stagnation in global warming occurred in the simulations. The answer was: In under 2 percent of all the times we ran the simulation. In other words, over 98 percent of forecasts show CO2 emissions as high as we have had in recent years leading to more of a temperature increase.
SPIEGEL: How long will it still be possible to reconcile such a pause in global warming with established climate forecasts?
Storch: If things continue as they have been, in five years, at the latest, we will need to acknowledge that something is fundamentally wrong with our climate models. A 20-year pause in global warming does not occur in a single modeled scenario. But even today, we are finding it very difficult to reconcile actual temperature trends with our expectations.
SPIEGEL: What could be wrong with the models?
Storch: There are two conceivable explanations -- and neither is very pleasant for us. The first possibility is that less global warming is occurring than expected because greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have less of an effect than we have assumed. This wouldn't mean that there is no man-made greenhouse effect, but simply that our effect on climate events is not as great as we have believed. The other possibility is that, in our simulations, we have underestimated how much the climate fluctuates owing to natural causes.
SPIEGEL: That sounds quite embarrassing for your profession, if you have to go back and adjust your models to fit with reality…
Storch: Why? That's how the process of scientific discovery works. There is no last word in research, and that includes climate research. It's never the truth that we offer, but only our best possible approximation of reality. But that often gets forgotten in the way the public perceives and describes our work.
SPIEGEL: But it has been climate researchers themselves who have feigned a degree of certainty even though it doesn't actually exist. For example, the IPCC announced with 95 percent certainty that humans contribute to climate change.
Storch: And there are good reasons for that statement. We could no longer explain the considerable rise in global temperatures observed between the early 1970s and the late 1990s with natural causes. My team at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, in Hamburg, was able to provide evidence in 1995 of humans' influence on climate events. Of course, that evidence presupposed that we had correctly assessed the amount of natural climate fluctuation. Now that we have a new development, we may need to make adjustments.
SPIEGEL: In which areas do you need to improve the models?
Storch: Among other things, there is evidence that the oceans have absorbed more heat than we initially calculated. Temperatures at depths greater than 700 meters (2,300 feet) appear to have increased more than ever before. The only unfortunate thing is that our simulations failed to predict this effect.
SPIEGEL: That doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Storch: Certainly the greatest mistake of climate researchers has been giving the impression that they are declaring the definitive truth. The end result is foolishness along the lines of the climate protection brochures recently published by Germany's Federal Environmental Agency under the title "Sie erwärmt sich doch" ("The Earth is getting warmer"). Pamphlets like that aren't going to convince any skeptics. It's not a bad thing to make mistakes and have to correct them. The only thing that was bad was acting beforehand as if we were infallible. By doing so, we have gambled away the most important asset we have as scientists: the public's trust. We went through something similar with deforestation, too -- and then we didn't hear much about the topic for a long time.
SPIEGEL: Does this throw the entire theory of global warming into doubt?
Storch: I don't believe so. We still have compelling evidence of a man-made greenhouse effect. There is very little doubt about it. But if global warming continues to stagnate, doubts will obviously grow stronger.
SPIEGEL: Do scientists still predict that sea levels will rise?
Storch: In principle, yes. Unfortunately, though, our simulations aren't yet capable of showing whether and how fast ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will melt -- and that is a very significant factor in how much sea levels will actually rise. For this reason, the IPCC's predictions have been conservative. And, considering the uncertainties, I think this is correct.
SPIEGEL: And how good are the long-term forecasts concerning temperature and precipitation?
Storch: Those are also still difficult. For example, according to the models, the Mediterranean region will grow drier all year round. At the moment, however, there is actually more rain there in the fall months than there used to be. We will need to observe further developments closely in the coming years. Temperature increases are also very much dependent on clouds, which can both amplify and mitigate the greenhouse effect. For as long as I've been working in this field, for over 30 years, there has unfortunately been very little progress made in the simulation of clouds.
SPIEGEL: Despite all these problem areas, do you still believe global warming will continue?
Storch: Yes, we are certainly going to see an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or more -- and by the end of this century, mind you. That's what my instinct tells me, since I don't know exactly how emission levels will develop. Other climate researchers might have a different instinct. Our models certainly include a great number of highly subjective assumptions. Natural science is also a social process, and one far more influenced by the spirit of the times than non-scientists can imagine. You can expect many more surprises.
SPIEGEL: What exactly are politicians supposed to do with such vague predictions?
Storch: Whether it ends up being one, two or three degrees, the exact figure is ultimately not the important thing. Quite apart from our climate simulations, there is a general societal consensus that we should be more conservative with fossil fuels. Also, the more serious effects of climate change won't affect us for at least 30 years. We have enough time to prepare ourselves.
SPIEGEL: In a SPIEGEL interview 10 years ago, you said, "We need to allay people's fear of climate change." You also said, "We'll manage this." At the time, you were harshly criticized for these comments. Do you still take such a laidback stance toward global warming?
Storch: Yes, I do. I was accused of believing it was unnecessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not the case. I simply meant that it is no longer possible in any case to completely prevent further warming, and thus it would be wise of us to prepare for the inevitable, for example by building higher ocean dikes. And I have the impression that I'm no longer quite as alone in having this opinion as I was then. The climate debate is no longer an all-or-nothing debate -- except perhaps in the case of colleagues such as a certain employee of Schellnhuber's, whose verbal attacks against anyone who expresses doubt continue to breathe new life into the climate change denial camp.
SPIEGEL: Are there findings related to global warming that worry you?
Storch: The potential acidification of the oceans due to CO2 entering them from the atmosphere. This is a phenomenon that seems sinister to me, perhaps in part because I understand too little about it. But if marine animals are no longer able to form shells and skeletons well, it will affect nutrient cycles in the oceans. And that certainly makes me nervous.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Storch, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Olaf Stampf and Gerald Traufetter
Study of Siberian cave reveals permafrost could thaw within decades
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, June 19, 2013 13:47 EDT
Areas of permafrost could start to thaw within decades, freeing long-stored greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to a study released on Wednesday that measured ancient stalagmites in a Siberian cave.
Continuous permafrost — land that is frozen all year round — starts to thaw when temperatures rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, its authors said.
Earth has already warmed by around 0.8 C (1.4 F) since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, and on current trends, the threshold could be reached “within 10-30 years,” they said.
“An urgent global effort (in) reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is required,” they warned.
A team led by Gideon Henderson at Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences looked at speleothems — stalagmites and stalactites — at Ledyanaya Lenskya cave near Lensk, eastern Siberia.
Speleothems grow when water from the surface seeps through the roof of the cave.
Caves themselves are usually at about the same temperature as the mean average air temperature at the surface.
Thus when the surface temperature drops below zero C, the ground freezes and there is no water seepage to promote the growth of speleothems.
As a result, speleothems in permafrost regions are faithful recorders of when their region was frozen and when it was above freezing, with traces of uranium and lead isotopes providing the pointers in time as to when these periods occurred.
The evidence from Ledyanaya Lenskaya suggests that its speleotherms grew substantially around 945,000 years ago, and again around 400,000 years ago.
Those bursts of permafrost thaw coincide with periods when Earth’s surface warmed by 1.5 C (2.7 F) in relation to the pre-industrial benchmark, with a margin of error of 0.5 C (0.9 F), according to the research.
The study will be presented at the Geological Society of London on June 27, the society said in a press release.
The state of the permafrost is a big question in climate science.
Nearly a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s land surface is permafrost, sequestrating an estimated 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon gas from vegetation that died millions of years ago.
If this land starts to thaw, the locked-up gas is released to the atmosphere, which adds to global warming emitted by fossil fuels, according to a much-feared scenario.
This in turn causes more permafrost to melt, emitting more gas, creating a vicious circle, which in scientific terms is called a positive feedback.
UN members have pledged to limit warming to 2 C (3.8 F) under a pact that would be agreed by 2015 and take effect by 2020.
On Wednesday, a report by the World Bank said there was a growing likelihood of 4 C (7.2 F) or even more by 2100, “in the absence of near-term actions and further commitments” on carbon emissions.
June 19, 2013
Investigation Follows Trail of a Virus in Hospitals
By DENISE GRADY
A man in a Saudi hospital has pneumonia. The patient in the room next door gets sick, and before anyone realizes what is happening he infects seven others, each of whom infects at least one more. An outbreak is born.
A detailed investigation of the viral illness first detected last year in Saudi Arabia has revealed the chilling ease with which the virus can spread to ill patients in the hospital — and its ability to infect some close contacts like hospital staff and family members who were in good health. A report on the investigation published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine pinpointed the time it takes for a person to get sick after being exposed to the virus, a median of 5.2 days.
The disease has now infected 64 people and killed 38 in eight countries. Saudi Arabia has had the most cases. The United States has had none.
The disease was first recognized in Saudi Arabia last September, and was later named MERS, for Middle East respiratory syndrome. It is caused by a coronavirus, a relative of the virus that caused SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which originated in China and caused an international outbreak in 2003 that infected at least 8,000 people and killed nearly 800.
MERS has not spread as rapidly or as widely as SARS did. The first few MERS cases seemed to pop up sporadically and mysteriously, and at first doctors did not think the disease was contagious. But over time it became apparent that patients in hospitals could infect one another, and that family members and health workers could sometimes contract it, too.
The apparently high death rate from the disease has worried health experts. More than half of the confirmed cases have been fatal. However, it is possible that milder cases have gone undetected and that the disease is not as deadly as it may initially appear, said Dr. Trish M. Perl, an author of the new report, and a senior hospital epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, who traveled to Saudi Arabia to investigate the outbreak.
But Dr. Perl added: “I’m very concerned about the amount of transmission we’ve witnessed in health care facilities, and the severity of disease we witnessed. And you’re helpless. There’s nothing to offer these patients.”
Dr. Perl, who also helped track the SARS outbreak in Toronto, said the new disease was very much like SARS, “almost scarily close.”
One patient infected seven others, somewhat reminiscent of the SARS phenomenon in which some patients were “superspreaders” who infected dozens of other people. But it is too soon to tell whether that kind of transmission will continue to occur with MERS, Dr. Perl said.
Doctors are trying antiviral drugs, but there is no proven drug treatment and no preventive vaccine. There is no rapid diagnostic test for people with symptoms; testing must be done at specially equipped labs. Nor is there a reliable test to determine whether people were exposed in the past, something that would help determine how widespread and severe the infection is.
Although many experts say global health authorities have gotten much better than in the past at detecting and investigating sudden disease outbreaks, Dr. Perl said they still were not responding quickly or effectively enough.
“It’s déjà vu,” she said. “How many times do we have to do this before we start having surveillance strategies to protect ourselves? Have we lost our way? This has been dragging on since September. There’s been a lot of wringing of hands. We haven’t learned from our past mistakes.”
So far, according to the World Health Organization, all the cases have originated in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Four other countries, Britain, France, Italy and Tunisia, have found cases in returning travelers and their close contacts.
In May, Saudi health officials invited Dr. Perl and a team of international experts from Britain, Canada and the United States to help study the outbreak. The team focused on 23 cases that occurred from April 1 to May 23 in four hospitals in Al-Hasa, an eastern province of Saudi Arabia. So far, 15 of the patients have died.
Team members visited the hospitals and pored over medical records to map the path of the virus. Most of the cases occurred in people who had other underlying illnesses and shared hospital rooms or wards with patients who had MERS. But several cases occurred in relatives who visited them, or hospital workers caring for them.
Although the new disease spread in hospitals, it did not arise there. The first cases came from people who were exposed elsewhere, perhaps through foods or animals. But researchers still do not know the source of the MERS virus or how the first patients contracted it — information essential for telling people how to avoid it.
The SARS virus is thought to have originated with bats, and scientists suspected that the same might be true of MERS, and that people might have contracted it from eating dates that had been contaminated by bats. But so far, no bats or any other animals have been found to be infected, according to Dr. Alimuddin I. Zumla, an author of the study and a professor of infectious diseases and international health at University College London Medical School.
“They have looked at over 200 animal species in the kingdom, thousands of samples from bats, cats, camels, other animals,” Dr. Zumla said. “Unfortunately, at the moment there is no link.” He said air-conditioning systems and water supplies were also being checked.
More than twice as many men as women have contracted the disease. Researchers do not know why.
“I don’t think the virus prefers any gender,” Dr. Zumla said, adding that he suspected that Saudi women might be protected by their veils, which cover their mouths and noses and might help keep the virus out.
Health officials are not recommending travel restrictions, but Dr. Zumla said that Saudi health officials had begun screening visitors for symptoms of the disease, like runny noses, coughs and fever.
He said health experts would be increasingly concerned as the time nears for the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca.
“Four million pilgrims from 182 countries are coming to Saudi Arabia in two months’ time,” Dr. Zumla said. “I am worried, as a physician.”
June 19, 2013
Obama Readying Emissions Limits on Power Plants
By JOHN M. BRODER
WASHINGTON — President Obama is preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, senior officials said Wednesday. The move would be the most consequential climate policy step he could take and one likely to provoke legal challenges from Republicans and some industries.
Electric power plants are the largest single source of global warming pollution in the country, responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. With sweeping climate legislation effectively dead in Congress, the decision on existing power plants — which a 2007 Supreme Court decision gave to the executive branch — has been among the most closely watched of Mr. Obama’s second term.
The administration has already begun steps to restrict climate-altering emissions from any newly built power plants, but imposing carbon standards on the existing utility fleet would be vastly more costly and contentious.
The president is preparing to move soon because rules as complex as those applying to power plants can take years to complete. Experts say that if Mr. Obama hopes to have a new set of greenhouse gas standards for utilities in place before he leaves office he needs to begin before the end of this year.
Heather Zichal, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said Wednesday that the president would announce climate policy initiatives in coming weeks. Another official said a presidential address outlining the new policy, which will also include new initiatives on renewable power and energy efficiency, could come as early as next week.
Ms. Zichal said none of the initiatives being considered by the administration required legislative action or new financing from Congress.
In a speech in Berlin on Wednesday, Mr. Obama echoed his assertive talk on climate policy since his re-election, talk that some climate advocates have criticized as going beyond his actions. He said the United States and the world had a moral imperative to take “bold action” to slow the warming of the planet.
“The grim alternative affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise,” Mr. Obama said. “This is the global threat of our time.”
He added, “We have to get to work.”
Republicans criticize Mr. Obama’s climate policy as government overreach that is holding back the economy. Some Democrats, including those hawkish about climate action, also worry that tough new standards on power plants could slow job growth and raise energy costs, particularly in places like the industrial Midwest that depend on cheap power from coal.
But administration officials signaled that Mr. Obama had decided the risks from climate change outweighed the potential economic and political costs from taking steps to address it.
“He is serious about making it a second-term priority,” Ms. Zichal said at a forum Wednesday in Washington sponsored by The New Republic magazine. “He knows this is a legacy issue.”
Ms. Zichal suggested that a central part of the administration’s approach to dealing with climate change would be to use the authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency to address climate-altering pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act.
“The E.P.A. has been working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gases from the coal sector,” she said. “They’re doing a lot of important work in that space.”
She did not specifically mention standards for existing power plants, but other senior officials have said in recent days that Mr. Obama has decided to start work on such regulations.
A 2007 Supreme Court decision gave the E.P.A. authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and it has already done so for vehicles. Environmental advocates said that addressing power plant pollution must be the centerpiece of any serious climate policy.
“To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a big deal,” said Daniel F. Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an advocacy organization. “Nothing he can do will cut greenhouse gases more.”
Last year, the E.P.A. proposed greenhouse gas regulations for new power plants that would essentially ban the construction of any additional coal-fired plants. The administration was required to complete that regulation by mid-April, but it missed the deadline in a sign of the pitfalls of such complex rule making. The E.P.A. has not said when it expects to complete the rules.
The timing of the new policy on existing power plants is driven in large part by the timetables the Clean Air Act sets for a major rule-making. The law requires the agency to publish proposed guidelines. States are then required to submit plans for meeting the guidelines, which the agency must review and which the public must be allowed time to comment on.
“All of that takes time, and we’re in a race against time,” said Vickie Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Regulation of existing power plants is further complicated by the pending nomination of Gina McCarthy to become E.P.A. administrator. Ms. McCarthy has for the past four years run the agency’s office responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act.
Senate Republicans are holding up her nomination over unrelated issues. Republicans and industry leaders also worry about her intentions on power plant regulation. In a carefully worded statement, she told committee members during her confirmation proceedings that the agency “is not currently developing” any such regulations.
The administration has been quietly stitching together a suite of global warming policy measures for the president to unveil this summer to make good on promises in his election night acceptance speech, his second Inaugural address and his State of the Union address.
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and his deputy, Rob Nabors, have regularly met with cabinet secretaries and their deputies to adapt to a changing climate and to propose new measures that do not require Congressional action.
Mr. Obama’s coming speech is also expected to highlight measures that the Department of Energy can take to make appliances and industrial equipment more efficient and to reduce the energy wasted in public and private buildings.
Singapore air pollution hits record high
Sumatra island fires push toxic smog plumes to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, triggering record levels of haze
guardian.co.uk, Friday 21 June 2013 11.19 BST
Air pollution in Singapore has soared to a record high for a third consecutive day, as Indonesia prepares to send planes and helicopters to battle the fires blamed for hazardous levels of smoky haze in three countries.
The blazes in peat swamp forests on Indonesia's Sumatra island have sent massive plumes of smog across the sea to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, both of which are growing impatient with Indonesia's response to the problem that occurs nearly every year.
Singapore is suffering its worst haze in history. Its main index for air pollution hit a measurement of 401 at midday on Friday, exceeding record highs of 371 on Thursday and 321 on Wednesday. Those measurements were classified as hazardous and could aggravate respiratory ailments.
Plagued by the stifling smell of burning vegetation that wafted into homes and offices in this wealthy city-state, residents flocked to pharmacies to buy protective face masks after Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, urged people to remain indoors.
"I don't know if it's just my imagination, but even indoors my throat is starting to feel weird," said business manager Tan Joa-Quim. "I want a mask but my company has a limited supply, which we prioritised for the older and less healthy staff, and a lot of shops have sold out."
The dirty, acrid haze has slashed visibility and shrouded many of Singapore's landmarks, forcing airports to take extra precautions, the military to reduce outdoor training and some fast-food businesses to suspend delivery services.
Singapore's environment minister flew to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, on Friday to discuss measures to tackle the forest fires that break out in Indonesia during midyear dry spells because of carelessly discarded cigarettes and illegal blazes set by plantations and farmers to clear land.
Indonesia's national disaster management agency said it planned to use two helicopters in a water-bombing operation to assist more than 100 firefighters on the ground.
It added that planes would be sent over parts of Sumatra in the next few days in a cloud-seeding effort to try to chemically induce rain.
Some airports in Sumatra have also closed because of poor visibility and pollution levels that exceeded Singapore's.
In neighbouring Malaysia, officials closed nearly 600 schools in southern districts near Singapore. Most of the country, including the main city, Kuala Lumpur, was not as badly affected, though two southernmost towns recorded hazardous air quality.
This week Singapore's environment minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, urged Indonesia to take urgent and definitive action to combat the pollution at its source. But some Indonesian officials suggested that Singaporean and Malaysian firms involved in Indonesian plantations might be responsible for several of the fires.
Some of world’s largest cities are improving energy efficiency
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, June 20, 2013 16:26 EDT
Some of the world’s largest cities are improving their energy efficiency, a report said Thursday, while nations struggle to forge a global response to climate change.
Cities are taking action to reduce their carbon emissions and better manage their water strategy, said a report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which runs a platform for companies and cities to measure, disclose, manage and share environmental information.
The 110-city report from the London-based organisation follows the G8 summit of world leaders hosted by Britain this week.
Los Angeles led the way, managing annual energy savings of $13 million (9.85 million euros) — largely by retro-fitting traffic signals and street lights –followed by Washington and Las Vegas with $6.3 million, the CDP found.
“Cities are hotbeds of innovation, and local governments have been quick to implement many new ways to combat and adapt to climate change and resource scarcity,” said Conor Riffle, head of CDP’s cities programme.
“These leading cities are enjoying multiple paybacks for their economies and communities. National governments should pay close attention.”
Cities that took part in the study included Toyko, Seoul, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Singapore, Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Moscow, Paris and London.
The study found that the European cities surveyed produced $12,502 gross domestic product per metric tonne of carbon dioxide emissions, with South American cities producing $6,816, East Asian cities $5,831 and North American cities $5,550.
The report found that one out of every two actions cities take to reduce emissions are focused on efficiency.
It found that 62 percent of such actions had the potential to attract new business and investment.
Meanwhile it found that 55 percent of the cities studied were undertaking initiatives to reduce emissions that promote walking and cycling.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said: “Saving energy and using our resources more efficiently is absolutely vital to the sustainability, diversity and full recovery of this city’s economy.
“The green sector represents a new area of expertise and innovation for London, providing jobs and attracting investment while significant carbon dioxide reductions can save businesses substantial sums, improve air quality and make the capital a better place to live and work.”
Obama to announce plan to tackle climate change
US president will unveil blueprint for reducing carbon pollution in speech at Georgetown University
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 23 June 2013 00.59 BST
Barack Obama will unveil a national climate change plan on Tuesday, offering the first real glimpse of how he intends to make good on one of the most stirring promises of his inaugural address.
In a video posted on the White House web site on Saturday, the US president reiterated his view that climate change was the challenge of a generation.
The goals he will outline in his speech at Georgetown University will be equally ambitious, encompassing "a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it", Obama said.
There will likely be strong reactions from Republicans in Congress, who oppose action on climate change as well as from fellow Democrats. Some campaigners will also doubtless argue Obama should do much more to stop global warming.
In concrete terms, there is widespread expectation Obama will announce he is using his executive powers as president to direct federal government agencies to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and to encourage energy efficiency.
He is also expected to step up government programmes promoting the expansion of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power especially on public land.
The video also seemed to suggest that Obama would seek to involve his council of scientific advisors in drawing up a strategy for protecting American cities and coastlines from the worst consequences of climate change.
Some of the policy elements in Obama's address were previewed earlier in the week in a speech by the White House climate advisor, Heather Zichal.
In a forum sponsored by the New Republic magazine, Zichal suggested Obama would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of America's greenhouse gas emissions – responsible for up to 40% of carbon pollution – and have long been a target of campaigners.
The Obama administration has already taken steps to raising standards on new power plants. But it has balked until now at imposing tougher standards on existing power plants – a measure which would deliver the biggest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
There was intense speculation ahead of Tuesday's speech about whether Obama would promise to curb emissions of existing facilities.
The president's comments in a speech in Berlin this week seemed to suggest he was prepared for bolder action.
"Our dangerous carbon emissions have come down, but we know we have to do more, and we will do more," Obama told the crowd.
Zichal in her remarks this week also indicated EPA regulations would be part of Obama's climate plan.
"Going forward, obviously the EPA is going to be working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gas emissions from the coal sector," she said. "They're doing a lot of important work on that space."
Tuesday's speech is likely to provoke strong reactions across the political spectrum.
John Boehner, the house speaker, pre-empted the speech by several days, telling Fox news on Thursday it would be "absolutely crazy" to use the EPA to reduce carbon emissions.
On the opposite end of the political divide, Obama will be under intense pressure on Tuesday to offer some assurances to opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The project, intended to carry tar sands crude from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, has become a key issue for campaigners, who say it is a core test of Obama's environmental commitments.
A number of prominent Democrats – as well as 145 veterans of Obama's election campaigns – have come out against the pipeline.
New death from SARS-like coronavirus MERS as health experts meet
Saturday, June 22, 2013 8:45 EDT
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said another person had died of the SARS-like coronavirus MERS, and six new cases were registered, in statements on Thursday and Friday as international experts gather in Cairo to discuss the epidemic.
Experts, including from the World Health Organisation, are nearing the end of a four-day meeting on the disease which has now infected 55 people, killing 33 of them, in Saudi Arabia.
Added to previous WHO numbers, the new Saudi announcement brings the total number of confirmed cases to 70 worldwide, of which 39 have died.
In July large numbers of pilgrims are expected to travel to the Saudi city of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In October millions are expected there for the annual haj pilgrimage.
Late on Friday the Saudi Health Ministry said a 41-year-old woman in Riyadh was in a stable condition with the disease, and that a 32-year-old with cancer was also being treated. It said another person, whose infection was previously announced, had died.
On Thursday, it confirmed four new cases, including three health workers, who have all recovered.
Researchers said Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, is even more deadly than SARS and is easily transmitted in healthcare environments.
The disease can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia and has spread from the Gulf to France, Germany, Italy and Britain.