Saturday, December 15, 2007

Demonstrators in the Phillipines before the Bali
conference. AP photo.
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Bali High: Agreement Reached

UPDATE: Here's the opening graphs of the New York Times story:

The world’s faltering effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions got a new lease on life on Saturday, as delegates from 187 countries agreed to negotiate a new accord over the next two years — pushing the crucial debates about United States participation into the administration of a new American president.

Many officials and environmental campaigners said American negotiators had remained obstructionist until the final hour of the two-week convention and had changed their stance only after public rebukes that included boos and hisses from other delegates.

The resulting “Bali Action Plan” contains no binding commitments, which European countries had sought and the United States fended off. The plan concludes that “deep cuts in global emissions will be required” and provides a timetable for two years of talks to shape the first formal addendum to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty since the Kyoto Protocol 10 years ago.

The Times story, and a later one from the BBC quoted the White House as insisting--as U.S. negotiators did--that the developing countries (India and China chiefly) commit to reducing emissions, and not only the developed nations. It's currently heads you win tales I lose whether the biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world is the U.S. or China.

The Guardian report emphasized the drama of the final session, and had this report on the decisive moment:

But the road was extremely rocky. Talks stalled as Paula Dobriansky, head of the US delegation, signalled that America opposed calls from poorer countries for technological and financial help to combat climate change. It seemed any agreement was doomed. Then Papua New Guinea took to the floor and, in a highly charged speech, its delegate challenged the US: 'If you're not willing to lead, get out of the way.'

Minutes later, in an astonishing reversal, Dobriansky returned to announce, to cheers from the hall: 'We will go forward and join the consensus.'

While the need for the developing world to join this effort is real, the U.S. position on helping these nations do so, especially with technology, was stupid and venal. Such a tradeoff between the nations that chiefly caused global heating and the nations that are likely to be its chief victims is simple fairness, although it doesn't really do justice. And I'm reminded that even in the late 1980s, when James Burke created his After the Warming scenario of the climate crisis future, the rough justice and certainly the practicality of such an arrangement was obvious.

The reports are starting to come in at this hour that the nations of Earth represented at the Bali conference have agreed on a way forward in negotiating a climate treaty by 2009 to follow the Kyoto Accords. One Indonesian official referred to the agreement as "a breakthrough."

It's not clear yet exactly what they agreed on, except that there are no hard targets set for emissions cuts by developed countries--those are to be negotiated for the treaty itself-- and some indication that developing countries will participate. But the first reporting expresses that the long, hard negotiations resulted in some emotional moments towards the end. China was recalcitrant, but it was the sudden reversal of the U.S. that allowed agreement. (Apparently the U.S. team suddenly realized that they'd gotten what they asked for. Obstructionism can become a automated response. )

An earlier story did say that agreement had been reached to include forest conservation in the treaty, and apparently to organize stronger efforts internationally to halt deforestation, a major cause of CO2 emissions in the developing world.

Friday, December 14, 2007

London pre-Bali protestor. BBC photo.
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Let Us Begin

The news on the Climate Crisis front is not all bad. Keep in mind a few things Al Gore said in the past few days. In Bali, he told delegates that while Washington obstructs, there's a lot positive happening in the states, regions and cities of America. And in his Nobel speech, he spoke of the need for imagination and innovation:

"That means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.

This new consciousness requires expanding the possibilities inherent in all humanity. The innovators who will devise a new way to harness the sun’s energy for pennies or invent an engine that’s carbon negative may live in Lagos or Mumbai or Montevideo. We must ensure that entrepreneurs and inventors everywhere on the globe have the chance to change the world. "

The San Francisco Bay area has examples of local initiative and innovation on view just this past week. Following a pioneering program in nearby Berkeley, the city of San Francisco is proposing to subsidize half the cost that homeowners and businesses incur to install solar panels. If implemented, the S.F. Chronicle story says, it will be the largest such program in America.

This same week a proposal emerged to create the California Institute for Climate Solutions, in which universities including the University of California and Stanford would coordinate their ongoing and future research.

These are just two examples in one part of the country. Meanwhile, innovation goes forward here and there. Honda is about to test market a hydrogen car, and it gets quite a good review in the New York Times. (Though the article doesn't answer key questions about it in terms of greenhouse gas pollution, it certainly sounds like an improvement over gas guzzlers and hybrids.)

The Times also had an article on airborne wind turbines, which harvest wind power where the wind is always blowing--way up high. Filled with helium, outfitted with electrical generators and tethered to the ground by a conductive copper cable, the 100-foot-wide Magenn Air Rotor System (MARS) will produce 10 kilowatts of energy anywhere on earth. A prototype is expected to be built this year, with private investment.

There was comparatively good news on how hard it will actually be to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions: and the answer appears to be, not as hard as you might think, at least in the beginning. The United States could shave as much as 28 percent off the amount of greenhouse gases it emits at fairly modest cost and with only small technology innovations, according to a new report, as the New York Times put it. Although some changes will require leadership and cost, some can be accomplished right now by individuals, families and communities.

Wordchanging, with links to the study, said: While initial up-front costs could be high, McKinsey says “a concerted, nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly stimulate economic forces and create business opportunities that we cannot see today.”

There’s one caveat: “Achieving these reductions at the lowest cost to the economy, however, will require strong, coordinated, economy-wide action that begins in the near future.” That’s consultant-speak for act now.

In a previous article, Worldchanging said that this study shows that although initial outlays will be in the billions, 40% of the cuts in emissions will actually save money. Supported by both energy companes and environmental groups, including Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, Royal Dutch Shell, and Pacific Gas and Electric, the study finds that the United States could reduce its projected greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by three to four-and-a-half gigatons using technology that is largely already in place. “Eighty percent of the reductions come from technology that exists today at the commercial scale,” according to McKinsey director Jack Stephenson. The other 20 percent is from technology that is currently being developed, such as plug-in hybrids and cellulosic biofuels.

And in a week when a couple of studies warn that Arctic melting is happening much faster than previously believed, there was even a little positive environmental news: The destruction of the Amazon rainforest that's within Brazil forests has slowed by 20% in the past year, the third year in a row that deforestation has fallen. Though some question whether this progress is real and can be sustained, there's more to be said about Brazil as a key and a model for the environmental future.

None of this should minimize the hard challenges ahead. In a little noted comment in his Nobel speech, Gore warned: "The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do." But let us begin.

A melting ice sculpture in Berlin--part of the global
series of demonstrations to raise awareness for the
Bali climate crisis conference. AFP/BBC photo.
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Bali hi: Holding US accountable

Things are getting rambunctious in Bali. After the American Nobel Peace Prize winner told the conference, "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali.” the German representing the European Union threatened to boycott Bush's play-conference on global heating next month in Hawaii if that obstructionism ends in stalemate at this conference.

The U.S. is not the only obstruction: you can count Russia, China, Japan, India and Canada among the polluting nations that don't want to be held to account on emissions. But the U.S. is taking the brunt of the criticism. From the NY Times story: “The best we hoped for was that the U.S. would not hobble the rest of the world from moving forward,” said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit American organization. “Our delegation here from the States has not been able to meet that low level of expectation.”

Gore's speech was covered more thoroughly in an outlet in India which described it as "a speech likely to go down in history as an oratorical milestone in the fight against global warming." (Hat tip to Meteor Blades at Daily Kos, who has been one of the few American journalists to report on this story every day of the Bali conference.) So through this story we learn that Gore did not offer his indictment of what the Bushites in power are doing to subvert the conference as an excuse for inaction.

Gore said: "My country is not the only one that can move forward. You can do one of two things. You can feel anger and frustration and direct it at the US. Or you can move forward and keep a large blank space in your mandate, saying our mandate is incomplete but we're moving forward in the hope that it will be filled in by the time we have a treaty in Copenhagen at the end of 2009."

"If you show anger, the entire world could lose momentum," he warned. The imperative is not for blame but for action. "We can't afford to talk for the next five years," he said, "when the scientists are telling us we have to take action within the next 10 years."

In truth, much of what the India story quotes from the speech is boilerplate Gore, recognizable from his Nobel address and even his testimony to Congress last year. But there was one stirring section I hadn't heard before: "Our capacity to strip away disguises is necessary now. We are one people on one planet, we've one future and one destiny. What we need now is capacity building in developed countries for political leadership."

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Through political luck or shrewd planning, who knows at this point, Barack Obama is rising above the pack at just the right moment to give him a credible chance to play dominoes with the primaries and come out the Democratic nominee.

Hillary Clinton's campaign appears to be faltering, and it may be the people she employs that's doing her in. I've always felt that I can live with Hillary as the nominee, but I can't live with her staff. In any case, she can survive losing in Iowa and even New Hampshire, and still win the nomination with a turnaround in February's megaprimaries. Then again, so could Obama. John Edwards probably has the will, money and muscle to hang around long enough to see if these two bump each other off. (I still think he's as likely as anyone to win Iowa.) The polls show the top three are very close, but Iowa is three weeks away. Three days before the voting will be the first time that the opinion polls may suggest the order of finish. Unless one of the other candidates pulls a surprise showing in the top three in Iowa, they're all pretty much done.

Political analyst Craig Crawford seems to think that Obama's confession of drug use in high school could still hurt him--even though it seems to have hurt the Clinton campaign more at the moment, which has reportedly been feeding the story. I don't think it will. Smirk did worse and at an older age, and voters ignored it. They ignored it with Bill Clinton's 60s youth, despite media frenzy. Obama wrote about it himself a decade ago, in the same context he mentions it today--as a cautionary tale to young people.

Of course, Republicans have no conscience about these kinds of attacks, but Smirk also got away with it because of his born again thing. Voters want to believe in redemption, and I think they really want to believe in it in a black man as well as a white fundamentalist. It doesn't tarnish Obama's image--think of all the white evangelists with a checkered past.

Otherwise, it occurs to me that Obama could turn up the wattage in his favor by making service a keynote of his campaign--service to the country and to humanity, like JFK did with the Peace Corps. It's also a way of channeling voter dismay and disenchantment with Bushworld. The U.S. doesn't have enough diplomats to staff its embassies--a call to service would help. A call to serve the needs of the nation, especially of the poor, of children and the old-- Obama more than any other candidate can do this credibly, especially with young people, who seem to be most enthusiastic about his candidacy. Such a call to service could energize his campaign even more, and jolt Obamamania into high gear.

I'm not competent to even suggest when the right moment to do this would be, but if the moment is right, it could do a lot to sweep him to the presidency.

Not Anyone's Finest Hour

It's pretty clear what the Bushite agenda is for the rest of Smirk's term: continued bullying, with special emphasis on pushing their failures into the next presidency, and protecting themselves from future law enforcement.

The "surge" of forces in Iraq was all about keeping that country from collapsing until after January 20, 2009, when the next President is inaugurated. The current obstructionism in Bali on the climate crisis is more of the same, though maybe longer term, until it's possible to blame the Democrats for not responding to health and environmental catastrophes caused by global heating. And of course, the CIA destroying tapes of torture is only the most awkwardly blatant of many furious mannings of the barricades to keep those responsible for horrors that violate laws from ever being held responsible in any court of law.

And the pathetic outcome is that the bullying is working. With an approval rating slightly higher than that for head colds, Bush refuses to compromise at all--in even the most usual ways--on any legislation before Congress, and he's getting away with it. Congress failed by one vote to put some muscle in the energy bill, especially in taxing the outrageous profits of oil companies, and passed a watered-down version. They've acceded to Bushite demands, only to be told that their humiliating obeisance was not craven enough. And so they're passing Bushite bills, and the Democrats are reportedly fighting amongst themselves.

It's crap like this that disgusts the electorate and makes people cynical about government ever working. (Fortunately for corporations, their insidious machinations and incompetence is seldom on the public record.) Fortunately there is an election coming up, so hope springs eternal, but right now it can't come too soon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Posted by Picasain Bali. credit: APF

Bali Who?

The other day when I posted excerpts from Al Gore's Nobel Prize acceptance speech I felt a little foolish. I did so immediately after opening my email, before I'd checked news on the net. I thought everyone would be doing this story, but maybe I would choose different excerpts.

Guess again. The first American to win the Peace Prize in a generation, and winning it not for stopping a war or advocating an end to war, but in an unprecedented recognition that the global environmental climate crisis is the chief threat to peace for the next generation or more. But the American media ignored it. Completely. (Except for NPR.)

Now the U.S. media is all but ignoring the 180 nation climate crisis conference in Bali. Most of the coverage is coming from foreign sources, including from news organizations in China.

I suppose all blogs would like to present you with news you won't find anywhere else. But news of what one leader called "the greatest project in the history of human civilization"? He's Indonesian, so what does he know.

So for the latest news from Bali...excerpts (my edits, my emphases) from the French news agency AFP:

Talks on halting the juggernaut of climate change swung into top gear here Wednesday with a blunt warning from UN chief Ban Ki-moon that the world was counting on a breakthrough.

Meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, environment ministers have until Friday to agree a framework for tackling global warming past 2012, when pledges under the Kyoto Protocol expire. "If we leave Bali without such a breakthrough, we will not only have failed our leaders but also those who look to us to find solutions, namely the peoples of this world," Ban said.

"This is the moral challenge of our generation. Not only are the eyes of the world upon us. More important, succeeding generations depend on us. We cannot rob them of their future."

He said they had to focus not only on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions but helping those least to blame for global warming yet most at risk.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono echoed Ban's warning. "We are embarking on the greatest project in the history of human civilization. And the worst thing that can happen here is to end our conference with no consensus, no breakthrough, and it's all business as usual."

In a video message from Oslo, where he received the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the UN's top climate change panel, Rajendra Pachauri spelt out key points on global warming: The unbridled burning of fossil fuels is stoking a greenhouse effect that is warming Earth's surface with potentially calamitous consequences, he said. By century's end, millions of people -- many in poor tropical countries -- face the risk of drought, floods, storms and rising sea levels.

The Bali talks do not themselves seek to draw up a new climate pact but to set a format for further negotiations. However, delegates point to several sticking points:
-- DEADLINE: Ministers must decide whether negotiations for the post-2012 deal should be given a deadline to wrap up by the end of 2009. This would give countries time to ratify the new deal so it can take effect as soon as Kyoto runs out.

-- POLITICAL SCOPE: The European Union wants a reference by industrialised countries that a cut of 25-40 percent in their emissions by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, will be a guideline for the post-2012 haggle. The United States, Japan, Canada and others however are against that. "We want to be sure that the text that we have before us is going to be neutral -- it will leave all options on the table and, again, will not prejudge outcomes, which should be something that comes at the end of the two-year process," said US negotiator Harlan Watson.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel countered that such figures are essential for rich countries to show emerging giant economies they are serious about action.

-- DEFORESTATION AND TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER: There is no agreement yet on how future talks should address forest loss and a transfer of clean technology to developing countries poised to become major emitters.

One diplomat predicted that by Friday's deadline, ministers may be reaching for their phones to lobby for help from their leaders. The ministers have "a massive task at hand if they are going to rescue this meeting," said Greenpeace's Cindy Baxter.

However, on the issue of forests, yesterday the British paper the Guardian was, well, less guarded: Negotiators working on a new global climate deal in Bali scored their first success today with progress agreed on deforestation and how to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

Officials said steps to protect forests were included in a new draft of the so-called Bali roadmap, and that they expected them to appear in the final text produced at the end of the talks on Friday. The move would make financial rewards for not cutting down trees a key part of a new climate deal. Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, said: "It looks like we're going to get something on deforestation, which would be great."

It's no surprise that the U.S. of Bush is resisting anything substantive on anything, especially mandatory goals for greenhouse gas emission cuts. China is also flatly not interested in setting goals. Together these are the two major greenhouse gas polluters on the planet. But Canada and Japan are not being very constructive, either. With its newly elected pm, Australia has joined the coalition of the willing to do something to save civilization, but the question is what will the rest of the world do while it is waiting for the new U.S. president--who Al Gore told delegates is likely to have a different approach to the climate crisis, whoever he or she is. How strong a message will they send?

Update: To be fair, the New York Times now has an article, but it doesn't add much to the above.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Arctic Melting Means

In his Nobel speech, Al Gore referred to the melting of Arctic ice, and the prediction that summer ice will be gone in seven years. But apart from the likely extinction of polar bears, what does this mean in the context of Climate Crisis effects?

The AP had a story on this today, because some scientists, who initially "shocked" the community by predicting that summer Arctic ice could be gone as soon as 2040, are now saying it looks like it could be pretty much gone by 2012--in five years. The story explains some of the significance.

Jay Zwally is a NASA climate scientist: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming," said Zwally, who as a teenager hauled coal. "Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines." The story goes on:

What happens in the Arctic has implications for the rest of the world. Faster melting there means eventual sea level rise and more immediate changes in winter weather because of less sea ice.

In the United States, a weakened Arctic blast moving south to collide with moist air from the Gulf of Mexico can mean less rain and snow in some areas, including the drought-stricken Southeast, said Michael MacCracken, a former federal climate scientist who now heads the nonprofit Climate Institute. Some regions, like Colorado, would likely get extra rain or snow.

Melting of sea ice and Greenland's ice sheets also alarms scientists because they become part of a troubling spiral. White sea ice reflects about 80 percent of the sun's heat off Earth, NASA's Zwally said. When there is no sea ice, about 90 percent of the heat goes into the ocean which then warms everything else up. Warmer oceans then lead to more melting.

"That feedback is the key to why the models predict that the Arctic warming is going to be faster," Zwally said. "It's getting even worse than the models predicted."

NASA scientist James Hansen, the lone-wolf researcher often called the godfather of global warming, on Thursday was to tell scientists and others at the American Geophysical Union scientific in San Francisco that in some ways Earth has hit one of his so-called tipping points, based on Greenland melt data.

"We have passed that and some other tipping points in the way that I will define them," Hansen said in an e-mail. "We have not passed a point of no return. We can still roll things back in time — but it is going to require a quick turn in direction."

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Dreaming Up Daily Image

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"We Must Make It Right"--Al Gore's Nobel Speech

A novel--and Nobel--experience to find in my inbox an email from the Nobel Peace Prize winner with his acceptance speech. Passing on some excerpts seems the least I can do. Al Gore's entire speech, which he officially delivered today, was about the Climate Crisis. I've added my own emphases in bold.

So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.

Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed.

But unlike most other forms of pollution, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless -- which has helped keep the truth about what it is doing to our climate out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, the catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented – and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.

We also find it hard to imagine making the massive changes that are now necessary to solve the crisis. And when large truths are genuinely inconvenient, whole societies can, at least for a time, ignore them. Yet as George Orwell reminds us: “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

In the years since this prize was first awarded, the entire relationship between humankind and the earth has been radically transformed. And still, we have remained largely oblivious to the impact of our cumulative actions.
Indeed, without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the earth itself. Now, we and the earth's climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: "Mutually assured destruction."

Now comes the threat of climate crisis – a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable. For now we still have the power to choose our fate, and the remaining question is only this: Have we the will to act vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?

We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step “ism.”

That means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.

This new consciousness requires expanding the possibilities inherent in all humanity. The innovators who will devise a new way to harness the sun’s energy for pennies or invent an engine that’s carbon negative may live in Lagos or Mumbai or Montevideo. We must ensure that entrepreneurs and inventors everywhere on the globe have the chance to change the world.

When we unite for a moral purpose that is manifestly good and true, the spiritual energy unleashed can transform us. The generation that defeated fascism throughout the world in the 1940s found, in rising to meet their awesome challenge, that they had gained the moral authority and long-term vision to launch the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and a new level of global cooperation and foresight that unified Europe and facilitated the emergence of democracy and prosperity in Germany, Japan, Italy and much of the world. One of their visionary leaders said, “It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of every passing ship.”

We must understand the connections between the climate crisis and the afflictions of poverty, hunger, HIV-Aids and other pandemics. As these problems are linked, so too must be their solutions. We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community.

But the outcome will be decisively influenced by two nations that are now failing to do enough: the United States and China. While India is also growing fast in importance, it should be absolutely clear that it is the two largest CO2 emitters — most of all, my own country –– that will need to make the boldest moves, or stand accountable before history for their failure to act. Both countries should stop using the other’s behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment.

These are the last few years of decision, but they can be the first years of a bright and hopeful future if we do what we must. No one should believe a solution will be found without effort, without cost, without change. Let us acknowledge that if we wish to redeem squandered time and speak again with moral authority, then these are the hard truths:

The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do.

We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource. So let us renew it, and say together: “We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise, and we will act.”