As Congress reconvenes the most recent of the BP executives' unenviable appointments in Washington this afternoon, a word about Tony Hayward's current inquisitor: California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There's an interesting symmetry between today's hearing and one that Waxman held a quarter century ago, when he was a subcommittee chairman. The news peg, then as now, was an unprecedented environmental catastrophe: the December 3, 1984 chemical leak at Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 3,000 people. And then as now, Waxman (whose committee drafted the House climate change bill last year) was engaged in a protracted, long-odds battle for a game-changing piece of environmental legislation: the expanded pollution regulations that would eventually be signed into law as the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.
Among the pollutants that Waxman was hoping to regulate were the same categories of air toxics that had caused the Bhopal disaster, and shortly after the incident he and his staff pulled together a field hearing in West Virginia, near another Union Carbide plant that produced the same chemicals as the one in Bhopal, and posed similar risks. It was a canny political set piece, and while the Clean Air Act reauthorization wouldn't make it into law for years, the spectacle whipped up by the Bhopal hearing prompted Congress to pass a precursor law requiring chemical plants to inventory and disclose their toxic emissions. It was a milestone in environmental regulation in the United States: Never before was anyone but the chemical companies understood the sheer quantity of the toxic pollutants, 2.7 billion pounds of which were emitted in 1987 alone.
I bring all of this up because in several ways, Waxman is working from the Bhopal playbook today. In The Waxman Report, the autobiography he published last year, the congressman distills the lessons of Bhopal for the sort of long, grueling legislative crusades that are his stock in trade:
In contrast to what many people imagine, legislative debates rarely occur within fixed parameters, or at least not for very long -- the center is constantly moving. In the years it can take to pass a major piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the terms of debate often shift significantly. Sometimes the balance shifts gradually and by design, such as from a sustained lobbying effort. At other times, the shift happens suddenly and without warning, the consequence of a new president, a shake-up in Congress, or a major news event that recasts public opinion.
The BP spill has certainly recast public opinion on oil drilling, but its implications for broader environmental policy, particularly a future energy and climate change bill, are far from clear. At the New Republic, Bradford Plumer offers a particularly gloomy reading on the response to the spill among American politicians and the public; plenty of other pundits have noted that in his widely panned Oval Office speech earlier this week, President Obama was conspicuously reluctant to tie the disaster to specific policy goals.
But keep an eye on what comes out of today's hearing. Waxman and his House colleagues are less central to the future of a climate bill than their opposites in the Senate, or the president. Still, the guy knows how to make use of a disaster.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
It's no secret that Japan seeks an end to the longstanding moratorium on commercial whaling passed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. Nor is Japan a stranger to allegations that it's bribed other IWC members to vote for its position. But now, the London Times is carrying what it says is proof that at least six states agreed to vote for Japan's position in exchange for aid:
Japan denies buying the votes of IWC members. However, The Sunday Times filmed officials from pro-whaling governments admitting [...] They voted with the whalers because of the large amounts of aid from Japan. One said he was not sure if his country had any whales in its territorial waters. Others are landlocked.
The governments of St Kitts and Nevis, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Grenada, Republic of Guinea and Ivory Coast all entered negotiations to sell their votes in return for aid.
The top fisheries official for Guinea said Japan usually gave his minister a “minimum” of $1,000 a day spending money in cash during IWC and other fisheries meetings.
If the Times' report is true, Japan's efforts to overturn the whaling ban may have suffered a major setback. But anti-whaling activists shouldn't rejoice just yet. Debate surrounding the issue has gotten progressively more intense in the last few months as the IWC prepares to consider just what Japan is looking for -- a (temporary) suspension of the moratorium, to be voted on later this month in Morocco. The meeting also follows a recent breakdown in relations between Japan and Australia, whose government sued Tokyo on June 1 for repeatedly violating the IWC whaling ban.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Of all the photos documenting the effects of the oil spill (and there are some true stunners), the images of oil-soaked pelicans are among the most arresting and disheartening. One shows an immobile bird making a futile attempt to flap its wings. Another captures a brown and slimy creature opening its beak wide in what looks unmistakably like a shriek -- the avian equivalent, perhaps, of the desperate expressions on the faces of Gulf fishermen. At least, you tell yourself, these poor pelicans get picked up, cleaned up, and sent on their way -- feathers ruffled, daily routing upended, but not all that worse for wear (oil contaminates the birds but, if properly removed, doesn't cause permanent damage).
If you've been reassuring yourself with this rosy rescue story: think again. Silvia Gaus, a German animal biologist, has spoken out to advocate a "kill, don't clean" approach to handling the damaged birds. She's been joined by a chorus of scientific and environmental experts, including spokesmen for the World Wildlife Fund, who say that the low rates of survival for the birds -- estimated by Gaus to be a mere 1 percent -- mean that life-saving attempts just aren't worth the effort. The stress experienced by birds, they say, is simply too much: most, they predict, will go on to die of kidney or liver failure.
An editor at the Anchorage Daily News offered a less scientific perspective:
"Somewhere in America today, a child is going hungry while well-meaning people go to great lengths trying to save oiled Alaska birds destined to die shortly anyway...Why? Because rescuing these birds makes some people feel better about themselves."
If you don't buy either argument (and many don't: the executive director of the International Bird Rescue and Research Center called them "completely bogus"), there are a few facts you might bear in mind about the challenges of cleaning and saving oil-contaminated birds. In order to wash a single pelican, you'll need four pairs of hands (one bird rescue expert says with horror that she'd "never wash a bird alone"), a soft baby toothbrush, a handful of q-tips, a bottle of Dawn detergent (proven through "twenty years" of research to be the most effective de-oiling product), 300 gallons of hot water, and 45 minutes of your afternoon. Now multiply that by about a thousand.
This debate is just one of many unfolding between experts of all kinds in the aftermath of the spill. But it isn't hard to imagine how this tug-of-war between optimism (think "Save the Pelicans" bumper stickers) and fatalism ("just euthanize") might start to infiltrate other dimensions of the response effort. That is, if it hasn't already.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
It's from a firm called Covalence that calculates companies' ethical reputations and, on a neat mapping tool, tracks them against the amount of attention the companies are receiving in the media. (Methodology here.) From this report, a look at how different international industries have fared over the past half-decade, as the volume of information about them has generally increased:
Not only is the oil and gas industry in the basement, but it's one of the only industries whose reputation gets actively worse the more we know about it. For the largest oil and gas companies, the relationship is even starker -- spikes in attention track closely with drops in reputation.
On one level, this is probably just a measure of the very different reasons that different industries find themselves in the headlines. (When a tech company is in the news, it's because it's launching the iPad. When an oil company is in the news, it's because it has befouled a major ecosystem for a generation.) And energy companies are often particularly bad actors on the world stage.
But I suspect it's also a testament to the degree to which both the oil industry and the global public that depends on it are more comfortable when the latter knows less about how the former does its work -- the business of energy production is rarely pretty. Which is why all the unflattering attention is important: The best case for drilling domestically in the United States, rather than somewhere like Nigeria, is that the added scrutiny that operations here receive -- from the government, the media, and environmental organizations -- makes companies behave better than they do in the Niger River Delta, where oil operations are estimated to have leaked an amount comparable to the Gulf oil spill since the 1970s, and garnered a fraction of the international outrage.
U.S. Coast Guard
Plugging BP's catastrophic oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico, as you may have heard, is difficult. But how difficult, exactly? Nearly a month ago, BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay compared it to performing "open heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark with robot-controlled submarines."
In the weeks since, the executives, engineers, government officials, and sundry experts who have descended on the Gulf may or may not be much closer to fixing this thing, but they have gotten pretty good at describing just how difficult fixing it is. Here's BP Managing Director Bob Dudley:
"Like arm-wrestling between two equally strong people."
Energy analyst Byron King, riffing on McKay's original:
"It's like doing brain surgery using robots under a mile of water with equipment that's got 30,000 horsepower of energy inside of it."
Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University:
"It's kind of like pushing toothpaste through an obstacle course."
James J. O'Brien, professor emeritus of Meteorology and Oceanography at Florida State University:
"It's like trying to unclog a toilet while you're standing on a ten-foot ladder with a long stick attached to the plunger."
Thomas Bickel, deputy chief engineer at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories:
"It's like trying to do an operation on the moon."
Andy Bowen, an oceanographer at Woods Hole, on the area of the seafloor where the leak occurred:
"It's sort of like being in the Grand Canyon with the lights out and in a snowstorm."
Dudley again, on the gas that's escaping with the oil:
"It's like a soda can, shaking it up and popping it off ... it's difficult to measure."
Does BP have someone on staff coming up with these all day? Does the company have Thomas Friedman on retainer?
Help us out here -- there must be more of these lurking among the talking points.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
And for his next trick...
He has put a tiger to sleep, ridden bare-chested on horseback and even saved baby seals from being clubbed to death. Today it was the turn of polar bears to feature in Vladimir Putin’s latest animal adventure.
The action-man Prime Minister was filmed attaching a tracking device to a sedated polar bear and helping scientists to measure and weigh the animal during a visit to the Franz Joseph Land in Russia’s Arctic far north.
Wearing a specially monogrammed red winter jacket, Mr Putin stroked the 230kg (36 stone) bear and shook its paw, saying “Be healthy”, as a commentator for state television told viewers that it could “wake up at any moment”.
Mr Putin, who asserted Russia’s “profound geopolitical interests” in the region during his visit, declared to the camera: “The bear is the master of the Arctic.”
The NASA sattelite image above terrifyingly shows both how big the Gulf of Mexico oil slick is -- compare it to the size of New Orleans -- and how close it's getting to the Louisiana coast.
For more on the ongoing cleanup effort, see this week's FP explainer.
NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
Here at FP, we've frequently highlighted bogus arguments made by climate-change skeptics, but environmentalists are certainly also capable of faulty logic and specious conclusions. In a new column for CNN, Alan Weisman, author of the bestselling The World Without Us, tries to infer a connection between climate change and the recent high-profile volanic eruption and earthquakes:
The denser that gaseous barrier grows, the hotter things get and the faster glaciers melt. As they flow off the land, we are warned, seas rise. Yet something else is lately worrying geologists: the likelihood that the Earth's crust, relieved of so much formidable weight of ice borne for many thousands of years, has begun to stretch and rebound.
As it does, a volcano awakens in Iceland (with another, larger and adjacent to still-erupting Eyjafjallajokull, threatening to detonate next). The Earth shudders in Haiti. Then Chile. Then western China. Mexicali-Calexico. The Solomon Islands. Spain. New Guinea. And those are just the big ones, 6+ on the Richter scale, and just in 2010. And it's only April.
It's looking like this may be a long decade. And if we don't pull carbon out of the way we energize our lives soon, a small clump of our not-too-distant surviving descendants may find themselves, as Gaia scientist James Lovelock has direly predicted, like the first Icelanders: gathered on some near-barren hunk of rock near one of the still-habitable poles, trying yet anew to eke out a plan for human civilization.
I don't know if scientsts really are worried about this -- a link there might have been nice -- but as the geologists I spoke to for this week's FP Explainer patiently explained to me, there's really nothing unusual about the recent level of geological activity:
2010 is actually shaping up to be a perfectly average year for quakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, since 1900 the Earth has experienced an average of 16 major quakes -- magnitude 7.0 or higher -- per year. In the first four months of 2010, there have been six. So though this will likely be a worse year than 1986, when there were only six major quakes total, it's unlikely to be as bad as 1943, when there were 32.
The recent high fatalities are not the result of more frequent or stronger quakes, but because we're building larger urban areas in fault zones -- and in the case of Haiti, not particularly well-constructed ones.
As for Iceland, as Weisman himself notes, it sits right on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge and volcanic eruptions are hardly unusual there. If prevailing winds hadn't pushed the ash cloud toward Europe, disrupting jet flights, the recent eruption would probably have barely been covered in the U.S. media.
While I'm ulimately more sympathetic to Weisman's worldview than Pat Robertson's or Rush Limbaugh's, blaming standard geological activity on Earth "striking back" makes about as much sense as blaming it on a voodoo curse or God's opposition to health-care reform.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
The International Whaling Commission unveiled a new proposal today that would lift the blanket ban on commercial whaling while reducing the number of whales caught each year by Japan, Iceland, and Norway and further regulating the trade .
Japan's response has essentially been, "we like that lifting the ban part":
Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu, while welcoming the endorsement of coastal whaling, said: "Regarding the total catch allowed, it is different from Japan's position. We want to continue negotiating with patience."
The U.S. lead the effort to put together the new proposal -- a painful compromise for whaling opponents -- which will be voted on at an IWC meeting in June.
It doesn't seem like anti-whaling countries have a whole lot of leverage here. The U.S. has rejected plans to impose economic sanctions against Japan's "scientific" whale hunts in the past and it's not clear how serious Australia is about its threats to take Japan to the International Criminal Court. Japan's best strategy seems to be to keep the IWC talking -- while recruiting more allies for its cause -- and continue the hunt in the meantime.
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Plastic Vortex, a Texas-sized gyre of plastic formed by ocean currents, has been known and well-documented for over a decade. But what about all the plastic in the Atlantic?
Researchers are warning of a new blight on the ocean: a swirl of confetti-like plastic debris stretching over thousands of square miles (kilometers) in a remote expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
The floating garbage - hard to spot from the surface and spun together by a vortex of currents - was documented by two groups of scientists who trawled the sea between scenic Bermuda and Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores islands.
Similar patches are thought to exist in the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
France was poised to become the first major economy to tax carbon emissions, but thanks to legal and political setbacks, it's not to be:
A tax would have to be introduced at a European level in order "not to harm the competitiveness of French companies," Francois Fillon was quoted as saying by several MPs of the governing UMP party who attended a meeting with him.[...]
Speaking after the UMP was badly beaten in regional elections seen as a punishment vote for Sarkozy, Fillon said the government's reform priorities were "growth, jobs, competitiveness and fighting deficits," the MPs told AFP.
Given the tricky logic of climate change regulations, in which no country wants to make painful cuts without assurances that other countries aren't gaining advantage, this is an international setback as well.
As mentioned in the brief, Tanzania and Zambia were rebuffed today in their attempts to relax the international ban on ivory sales at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Doha. The decision is being hailed as a victory for conservationists after some setbacks earlier in the week:
The rulings were a rare victory for environmentalists at the two-week meeting where they have endured defeats of proposals ranging from an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna to a shark conservation plan to a measure to regulate trade of red and pink corals.
Not that I approve of killing elephants for their ivory, but the economic double-standard at work here seems troubling. The tuna ban, for instance, was strongly opposed by Japan, which imports 80 percent of the world's bluefin and led a concerted lobbying effort to have the current rules overturned.
Japan has, for years, employed a similar strategy in its campaign to loosen restrictions on whaling, exchanging foreign aid to disinterested countries like Togo and St. Kitts who join the International Whaling Comission and vote with the pro-whaling bloc. Economist Christian Dippel has studied this phenomenon and wrote about it in a recent piece for FP.
Aid-receiving countries like Tanzania and Zambia presumably don't have the resources to mount such a campaign, which is a large part of the reason they want the ban lifted in the first place. As Zambia's Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources Catherine Namugala put it, "We can't justify failure to take a child to school because we are using resources to conserve elephants. I appeal to allow Zambia to utilize the natural resources given to us by God."
Again, I tend to side with the conservationists on this, but I certainly understand the frustration of poor-country governments who are expected to make economic sacrifices for the sake of endangered species while the world's second-largest economy continues to hunt species on the brink of extinction.
Update: New protections for hammerhead and white-tip sharks have also been shot down. Guess who led the opposition to them.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Canada's Conservative government says it will fight the EU ban, which was imposed last July on the grounds that the annual seal hunt off the east coast was cruel and inhumane.
A dish of double-smoked bacon-wrapped seal loin in a port reduction will be on the menu on Wednesday, the office of Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette said on Monday.
"All political parties will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the international community the solidarity of the Canadian Parliament behind those who earn a living from the seal hunt," she said in a statement.
Ottawa says the hunt -- which takes place in March and April -- provides valuable income for Atlantic fishing communities. The seals are either shot or hit over the head with a spiked club called a hakapik.
As provocations go, this kind of puts "freedom fries" to shame. Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean raised some eyebrows by dining on raw seal heart at a visit to an Inuit community last year and seal meat is becoming an increasingly popular delicacy in Montreal.
A setback for animal-rights activists in Switzerland:
Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a nationwide system of state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court. Animal rights groups had proposed the move, saying that without lawyers to argue the animals' case, many instances of cruelty were going unpunished.
But the measure was rejected by around 70% of voters in a referendum.
U.S. "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein wrote in favor of establishing something like this as a law professor, which led to hunting rights activists Saxby Chambliss and John Cornyn holding up his senate confirmation for a time. It's a safe bet that Sunstein won't touch anything like the Swiss proposal with a ten-foot poll now that he's actually in government, but it would still be interesting to know his thoughts on it.
On a slightly related note, I have a short piece in the last print magazine about circumstances under which animals observe human national borders.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Image
The Washington Post reports that the United States backs a ban on trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna and listing the fish as an endangered species.
Strickland said the U.S. decided it needed to push for the extraordinary new protection because "the regulatory mechanisms that have been relied upon have failed to do the job."
"We are literally at a moment where if we don't get this right, we could see this very, very special species really at risk for survival," said Strickland, who will lead the U.S. delegation to CITES between March 13 and 25.
For more on the politicking on the tuna trade before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Doha next week, see our story, "Peak Tuna."
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Since we've apparently been mandated by the Department of Homeland Security with providing more Olympics coverage, I thought I'd take note of the fact that, for the first time ever, the medals hanging around Olympians necks in Vancouver will be partially made with recycled materials:
The more than 1,000 medals to be awarded at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which kick off today, amount to 2.05 kilograms of gold, 1,950 kilograms of silver (Olympic gold medals are about 92.5 per cent silver, plated with six grams of gold) and 903 kilograms of copper. A little more than 1.5 percent of each gold medal was made with metals harvested from cathode ray tube glass, computer parts, circuit boards and other trashed tech. Each copper medal contains just over one percent e-waste, while the silver medals contain only small traces of recycled electronics. ...Teck Resources, the Vancouver-based company that extracted the metals used to make the medals, noted in a press release that it used a number of different recovery processes. The company shredded computers, monitors, printers and glass and then separated out steel, aluminum, copper, glass and other usable substances. The leftover shredded components were fed into a furnace operating at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius in order to remove the metals that could not be recovered simply by shredding the electronic devices.
I'm definitely not an expert in this, but it seems to me that it would take an awful lot of energy to extract (and detoxify?) the material and run a 1,200 degree (2,192 degrees Fahrenheit) furnace -- especially for about 30 kilograms of actual recycled material.
Clive Rose/Getty Images
Back in my days as an editor at Washington Monthly, we were taught to report on something colleagues called the "culture of bureacracy." This may sound like a snoozer topic, but the point is that you can learn a lot about how an institution is run by focusing on the little stuff: how fast it reacts to crises, how tasks get juggled, how promotions happen, etc.
So when trying to understand the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s recent woes -- the U.N. climate body has recently come under fire for errors in its latest reports, including misstating the date by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to disappear -- that's the approach I took in reporting "Inside the Climate Bunker." My conclusion was that while the ambition and global importance of the climate panel is growing, its methods and resources are struggling to keep up. Confusion, if not orchestrated bias, is certainly evident.
Today Walter Russell Mead has published a lengthy and thoughtful online response to my article, "Global Warming Movement Wasn’t Ready For Prime Time," in which he draws out what he believes that tells us about the global movement to address climate change:
The problem isn’t that the global warming movement took global warming too seriously; it’s that so far they haven’t taken it seriously enough. They believe that the world is threatened by an imminent danger, yet they haven’t bothered to think through a comprehensive political strategy or developed a competent and reliable institution to persuade what must inevitably be a skeptical world opinion that they are right.
While we do have some difference of opinion on the topic, I believe Mr. Mead has beautifully distilled the movement's inattention to the neccessity and culture of bureacracy.
For the past few months, a cynical observer might think, Washington has carried out a long piece of performance art detailing the many ways in which passing legislation is hard, even with the White House and Congress in one party's hands. There are holds, filibusters, floor motions, cloture, and sundry other rules. The Senate is a small-c conservative institution, delimited from making radical change in a thousand ways.
The biggest obstacle of all is the ticking clock. Every motion takes up floor time. There is only so much floor time. And, when it snows in Washington, there is less. Indeed, the Senate was briefly open for business today. But it won't be tomorrow or, probably, the next day, many thanks to Snowpocalypse 3. Senators need to be present to vote. They won't be, so the whole government apparatus will be shut down.
This got me to thinking: Do really inclement countries let their legislatures vote remotely?
The answer in the United States is no -- though it has been proposed before. The first country I thought of was Estonia, which has the most tech-savvy government on the planet and, I imagine, rather nasty winters. There, you can cast your national electoral ballot from the comfort of your living room sofa, over the Internet. (There are actually a number of countries and localities that allow this.) But, it seems, members of parliament need to be present to give the up or down on legislation.
I only found one government that allows remote legislative voting -- in, of all places, sunny Catalunya, Spain. In that region, which includes Barcelona, local representatives can request permission to send in their vote from home if they need to tend to a sick family member, for instance. No details on whether they also do it if hit with 22 inches of white stuff.
Sunny Spanish countryside by Flickr user laura padgett
Yesterday was deadline day: the date by which those countries that "noted" the non-binding Copenhagen climate accord were supposed to announce their national carbon-reduction targets. Reuters has tracked the pledges (below). There aren't many surprises because for the most part countries' carbon-reduction pledges mirrored what they said they were willing to do before Copenhagen.
Alas, what they've offered, at this point, isn't enough to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees.
- CHINA reiterated in a January 28 letter it would endeavor to cut the amount of carbon produced per unit of economic output by 40 to 45 percent below projected growth levels by 2020 from 2005. This "carbon intensity" goal would let emissions keep rising, but more slowly than economic growth. The letter stressed the U.N. Convention, without mentioning association with Copenhagen.
- INDIA said on January 31 it would endeavor to reduce its carbon emission intensity by 20 to 25 percent by 2020 in comparison to the 2005 level. The letter did not mention association with the Copenhagen Accord.
- SOUTH AFRICA offered on December 6 to slow the growth of its emissions by 34 percent below projected levels by 2020, conditional on a broad global deal and aid.
- BRAZIL reaffirmed on December 28 a goal announced before Copenhagen of reducing emissions by 36-39 percent below projected levels by 2020. At the most ambitious end of the range, it said emissions would fall by 20 percent from 2005 levels, back to 1994 levels.
- UNITED STATES climate envoy Todd Stern said on January 28 the country would aim to cut emissions by about 17 percent by 2020, from 2005 levels, confirming a goal set by the White House last year. The target, 4 percent below 1990 levels, may be harder to achieve after the Democrats lost a Senate seat.
- The EUROPEAN UNION reiterated on January 27 an offer of a unilateral goal for the 27-nation group of a 20 percent emissions cut by 2020, from 1990 levels, and 30 percent if other nations deepened their reductions.
- JAPAN said on January 26 it was reiterating an offer to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 on condition other emitters led by China and the United States agreed an ambitious deal.
- AUSTRALIA reaffirmed its goal of a 5 to 25 percent emissions cut below 2000 levels, corresponding to 3-23 percent under 1990, the government said on January 27. A decision to move beyond a unilateral 5 percent would not happen until the "level of global ambition becomes sufficiently clear."
In the end, Copenhagen resembled nothing so much as a global Weight Watchers meeting. Leaders from nearly 200 nations came to Denmark, affirmed that they had a common carbon-behavior problem, and agreed to support but not truly police each other. Expect bloated sea levels.
There's not a whole lot to feel good about in the headlines today, but the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is feeling a bit more optimistic about the world, and has moved its famous Doomsday Clock one minute back to "six minutes to midnight." The clock is a measure of how close the BAS board thinks the world is to catastrophic destruction. Turns out they agree with the Norwegian Nobel Committee that Barack Obama has made the world a slightly (very slightly) less dangerous place:
Created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted only 18 times prior to today, most recently in January 2007 and February 2002 after the events of 9/11. By moving the hand of the Clock away from midnight — the figurative end of civilization — the BAS Board of Directors is drawing attention to encouraging signs of progress. At the same time, the small increment of the change reflects both the threats that remain around the globe and the danger that governments may fail to deliver on pledged actions on reducing nuclear weapons and mitigating climate change.
The BAS statement explains: “This hopeful state of world affairs leads the boards of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — which include 19 Nobel laureates — to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock back from five to six minutes to midnight. By shifting the hand back from midnight by only one additional minute, we emphasize how much needs to be accomplished, while at the same time recognizing signs of collaboration among the United States, Russia, the European Union, India, China, Brazil, and others on nuclear security and on climate stabilization.”
The statement continues: “A key to the new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of Obama. With a more pragmatic, problem-solving approach, not only has Obama initiated new arms reduction talks with Russia, he has started negotiations with Iran to close its nuclear enrichment program, and directed the U.S. government to lead a global effort to secure loose fissile material in four years. He also presided over the U.N. Security Council last September where he supported a fissile material cutoff treaty and encouraged all countries to live up to their disarmament and nonproliferation obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty…”
As today's photo essay shows, winter is in full force across Europe, causing havoc with the lives of millions. Airports have shut down, roads are treacherous, and rail derailments are becoming a frequent occurrence. But most of the temperatures Europeans are complaining about aren't all that bad. Yeah, sure, it's a bit chilly, but come on:
Judith Moritz reports from Woodford in Cheshire, where temperature overnight plunged to -17.6C, below that recommended for a domestic freezer.
The high temperature over the holidays in my native Iowa reached that level once, or maybe twice. Edward Lucas, in The Daily Mail, agrees with my sentiment:
Timidly shivering in their badly insulated houses, or tottering along unswept pavements in unsuitable footwear and inadequate clothes, the British present a pathetic sight in winter.
Not just incompetent in the face of the challenge of a cold snap - but too often joyless to boot.
What a contrast to Russia and other East European countries where I have spent most of my adult life.
Despite my pooh-poohing, the cold-wave sweeping the continent is having a severe effect. British demand for gasoline is at a record high, a Eurostar train stalled in the Channel Tunnel, and rather sadly a million Scottish sheep are in danger of dying. Perhaps most distressing for Britons, a wave of football fixtures this week have been postponed, with even more games slated for this weekend put on hold.
Europe is lucky in one regard this winter. The ever-constant threat of gas flow disruptions, as a result of geopolitical arguments in eastern Europe, has yet to rear its head this season. The only hiccup this far has been a row between Belarus and Russia, with Belarus threatening to cut off the flow of gas to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad over an oil price dispute.
MYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images
With all due respect to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, I don't think you really needed an advanced computer model to predict that the Copenhagen conference wasn't going to end with binding emissions goals. But even so, the final deal is a crushing disappointment. Developing countries didn't get the deep emissions cuts or level of aid that they were hoping for. Nor did they commit to the binding agreements or outside verification that developed countries were hoping for. (That includes China, which is absurdly placed in the same category as Kiribati and Tuvalu in the final agreement.) And, perhaps most disappointing, we can't even hope for a real deal in 2010 anymore.
In following international politics -- or any politics for that matter -- one thing that we hear again and again is that meaningful deals and agreements are not reached at summit meetings or international conferences under the glare of TV cameras, but in private, but low-ranking bureaucrats we've never heard of, who have most of the details worked out by the time heads of state arrive.
Yet today, we were treated to the spectacle of President Barack Obama flying in to Copenhagen to play Deus ex Machina and holding last-minute meetings with Wen Jiabao. The conference was leaking like a sieve from the start, with new draft agreements appearing in newspapers and developing countires staging a walkout.
Given that the essential conflicts involved weren't exactly unknown, one has to ask, where was the backroom advance work? As he so often does, Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva summed up the proceedings well:
"We did we face all these difficulties?" Lula said. "Because we did not take the care in advance to work with the responsibility needed."
Couldn't the U.S. and China (the two countries that really mattered in this discussion) have reached some compromise position -- however watered-down -- before Copenhagen and left it to the conference to hammer out the details? A very public two-week conference under siege from both environmentalist protesters and climate denialists was hardly the best place to start from scratch.
In the end, no one really looks good. Obama has been thwarted for the second time this week by the intransigence of an erstwhile friend. China will once again be painted as the villain (though it's hardly alone in sharing the blame). The White House is already spinning this as "an important first step," but in terms of the prospects for a cap-and-trade bill, it may a step back since U.S. business interests will now be able to say (with some justification) that they're being asked to make sacrifices while the world's largest emitter makes no binding commitments. The poor planning and seeming lack of advance work for the event don't exactly help the U.N.'s credibility as a forum for working out these deals. And the Earth, of course, keeps getting hotter.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
In the absence of real progress to report, news coverage of the ongoing U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen has lately begun to focus on the protestors.
Here is what we know: There are a lot of them (estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000). They've got some nifty signs and face paint (slogans include: "Planet not profit" and "There is no Planet B"). They've come from around the globe. And several hundred have been thrown in jail.
What we don't know is: What do they want?
For all the stories I've lately read about whether the protests were generally peaceful, whether the anarchists were a fringe minority, or whether jail time for anyone was warranted, I'm still a bit hazy on the larger point.
Where have all the good protestors - and message disciplinarians - gone?
Once upon a time, there was a grand tradition of protestors channeling their energies toward some clearly defined goal. I've written about this before for the Washington Monthly, so please excuse the zeal for history. But here's a quick run-down of the golden age of American protests:
The very first protest march on Washington, DC took place in the midst of an economic depression in 1894 when populist leader Joseph Coxey led an army of 500 jobless men to the Capitol steps to demand a public works program that would provide jobs for the unemployed.
Two decades later, in what must have been the first counter-inaugural protest, 28-year-old Alice Paul organized 8,000 women wearing white to march down Pennsylvania Avenue a day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The women were there to lobby for women's suffrage, a demonstration that was rewarded by the passage a few years later of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
In 1941, the mere threat of a public protest was enough to force political change: When A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, announced plans for a march on Washington, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense industry and federal jobs.
And the granddaddy of all protests, the March on Washington in 1963, drew a quarter million people to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to demand voting protections and desegregation of public spaces; shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
You get the point. In each of these cases, a specific goal was identified; people were rallied behind the cause; a plan was devised; and often, as in the case of the women's suffrage and civil rights marches, a button-up dress code was enforced. The objective was for the message to be taken seriously. Everyone was more or less on the same page, and there was a clear benchmark for success.
Fast-forward to Copenhagen. Not only are the protestors' intentions and goals scrambled, but reporters have even stopped asking about them. It's no longer expected that protestors should have much purpose beyond self-expression. Which is a shame.
If today's tens of thousands of Copenhagen protestors wanted their efforts to amount to more than color for reporters' stories, they would do well to recognize the real reason why the marches of yesteryear are still remembered. It wasn't just about the messengers showing up; it was about the message - and a clear goal.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jamal Saghir, the director of the energy, transport, and water programs at the World Bank responds to a Foreign Policy article by Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace USA.
Mr. Radford's recent
column "Banking on Coal" provides a highly misleading and inaccurate picture of
the World Bank Group's efforts to help countries fight poverty and develop
He asserts that the World Bank Group is funding coal projects to the detriment of renewable energy (RE). Wrong. Our RE and energy efficiency (EE) financing levels are at historic highs -- over 40 percent of total fiscal year 2009 energy financing.
He says the Bank has been increasingly subsidizing coal projects. Wrong. Our fossil fuel share of financing has been declining for years, and two thirds of our fossil fuel financing is for natural gas, the cleanest fuel for base-load supply. Mr. Radford cites 2008 as a big year for coal financing, but neglects to mention that in fiscal year 2009 our coal financing then dropped 62 percent. Mr. Radford says that Bank fossil fuel financing is twice what we finance in RE/EE projects. Wrong again. In fiscal year 2009 we financed more RE/EE projects (over 40 percent) than fossil fuels (about 32 percent).
Over the last six years, coal represented 7.5 percent of all World Bank Group financing for energy. In some years it was as low as one or two percent. And fully a third of the spending on coal is to clean up inefficient, polluting old plants, something that surely Greenpeace would not want us to stop.
Mr. Radford criticizes the Bank's recently released draft energy strategy. We haven't issued a draft strategy. What we are doing is consulting in an open way with key stakeholders, including civil society organizations, whose input will help us to write a draft strategy next year.
Mr. Radford's criticisms lack context. He says that the Bank-financed projects are a significant source of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Wrong. Our projects are a minuscule fraction of the global footprint. The new proposed South African project he criticized will use the cleanest super-critical technology and has $750 million in financing for renewable energy and low carbon energy efficiency components that otherwise would not be part of the project.
We're proud to be a leader in advancing environmental financing innovation, such as the Climate Investment Funds ($6.3 billion pledged with $3.2 billion in investment plans already endorsed to support more than $30.5 billion in clean technology projects), the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, climate risk management products, and "Green Bonds."
The bottom line is that for our 186 member countries, our primary focus is
fighting poverty. There are 1.6 billion people living today without access to
electricity. Under very limited, case-by-case situations with strict criteria,
and when alternative lower-carbon technologies are not immediately available,
we will support least cost, carbon-based energy solutions. And we will do this
as an interim measure while we continue to help a country prepare for a cleaner
energy development path in the medium term.
The Indian plant he references will have lower emissions than the average for OECD countries (2005). Turning away from South African or Indian aspirations for affordable energy means turning away from energy for schools and hospitals and homes in those countries. It's particularly ironic for Mr. Radford in the United States to criticize our very modest portfolio when half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. While the World Bank Group is working to support low carbon paths, Mr. Radford advocates a double standard that will help ensure poor countries will not cooperate in addressing global climate change.
The World Bank Group is committed to fighting poverty and supporting economic growth and opportunity in a sustainable manner. Our increased lending for renewable energy and energy efficiency and our innovative financing demonstrates that we are serious about it.
See the World Bank's climate site here.
John Moore/Getty Images
An early draft of the Copenhagen climate change agreement, which is being called the "Danish Text" and was prepared by a group of countries including the U.S., U.K. and Denmark, has been leaked to the Guardian and has perturbed delegates from developing countries:
The agreement, leaked to the Guardian, is a departure from the Kyoto protocol's principle that rich nations, which have emitted the bulk of the CO2, should take on firm and binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, while poorer nations were not compelled to act. The draft hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank; would abandon the Kyoto protocol – the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions; and would make any money to help poor countries adapt to climate change dependent on them taking a range of actions.
The text itself is here.
Diplomats from developing countries are worried that Barack Obama and other rich-country leaders will try to "muscle through" the agreement this week, but it seems pretty unlikely to me that any agreement is getting muscled through unless the world's largest emitter is okay with it.
Saudi Arabia is very concerned about "Climategate":
As 15,000 delegates from 192 nations began what was billed as the "last, best chance" to avert a catastrophic rise in sea and air temperatures, Saudi Arabia's chief climate negotiator, Mohammed al-Sabban, spoke from the floor to say that e-mails hacked from a UK research centre had shaken trust in the work of scientists....
"In light of recent information ... the scientific scandal has assumed huge proportion," he said. "We think it is definitely going to affect the nature of what can be trusted in the negotiations."
While he didn't exactly have a lot of good options, I wonder if International Panel on Climate Change Chair Rajendra Pachauri didn't make a tactical error by addressing the Climategate critics and defending the work of the IPCC in his opening statement. If the U.N. allows the conference to turn into a debate on whether climate change is even happening, rather than what to do about it, they've probably already lost half the war.
Some environmental groups are planning disruptive protests for the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen, taking cues from the anti-globalization movement:
"We feel that right now in Copenhagen there is a real opportunity for things to come together a little bit like they did 10 years ago at the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle," Müller told SPIEGEL ONLINE....
To that end, Climate Justice Action and other groups are planning a number of activities to drive home their message. On Dec. 11, one group plans to take "direct action to confront corporations taking part" in the summit in an action called "Don't Buy the Lie." A number of groups are planning a worldwide protest for Dec. 12. And on Dec. 13th, another group hopes to blockade the Copenhagen harbor in protest against the way goods are produced, transported and consumed.
Reminiscent of Seattle
Perhaps most significant, however, Müller and his group plan to storm the conference on Dec. 16 and "disrupt the sessions and use the space to talk about our agenda," as the Climate Justice Action Web site describes it. The hope is that official delegations participating in the summit will join the protest, called "Reclaim Power."
The actions are reminiscent of similar tactics used during the WTO protest in Seattle, when protestors were successfully able to prevent delegates from reaching the convention center where meetings were being held. A riot quickly ensued, ultimately resulting in 600 arrests and numerous injuries -- and in a new model for anti-globalization protests that has been repeated numerous times since then. Indeed, some see climate change as being a new focus for the kind of demonstrations that have grown out of the anti-globalization movement.Despite Müller's protestations that he wishes to avoid violence, the Danish authorities are assuming the worst -- and outfitting the police with far-reaching new powers. In October, the Danish Ministry of Justice proposed a new law that would increase the penalties for police obstruction and vandalism. The law, branded by some activists as the "hoodlum" law, would increase the penalty for obstructing police to 40 days in jail. Currently, only a fine is called for. Police would also be able to detain potentially dangerous protesters for up to 12 hours instead of the current six. Penalties for vandalism would also increase by 50 percent.
This seems like a very poor model to follow. First of all, the green movement doesn't need a "coming out party." It's basic arguments are publicly understood in a way that the anti-WTO protesters' issues weren't.
Second, Seattle-style tactics make sense if you're trying to prevent leaders from getting anything done, such as signing new free-trade agreements. But when it comes to carbon emissions, most environmentalists want leaders to reach an agreement. Demonstrations are certainly warranted, but turning Copenhagen into the kind of tear gas-filled battlefield that typically forms outside of trade talks these days is not exactly conducive to politial progress.
DAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images
A new study from the University of Haifa finds that animals on either side of the Israel-Jordanian border exhibit different characteristics and behaviors:
The first study inspected the reptile population and revealed that the number of reptiles is similar on both sides, but the variety of species in the sandy areas of Jordan is significantly higher than the variety found in the sands of Israel. A second study revealed that Israeli gerbils are more cautious than their Jordanian friends, while a third study showed that the funnel-digging ant lion population in Israel is unmistakably larger than in Jordan.
According to the researchers, the differences between Israel and Jordan are primarily in the higher level of agriculture and the higher number of agricultural farms in Israel as opposed to Jordan's agriculture that is primarily based on nomadic shepherding and traditional farming. The agricultural fields on the Israeli side of the border not only create a gulf between habitats and thereby cause an increase in the number of species in the region, but they also hail one of the most problematic of intruders in the world: the red fox. On the Jordanian side, the red fox is far less common, so that Jordanian gerbils can allow themselves to be more carefree.
This follows an amazing Wall Street Journal story from two weeks ago describing how red deer still refuse to cross the German-Czech border, 20 years after an electric fence was taken down. The U.S.-Mexico border fence is also proving disruptive to migration patterns several species.
Arbitrary political constructions though they may be, national borders are becoming natural ones as well.
Some of the world's remaining communist countries (plus former Soviet Russia) are preparing to control the weather. Indeed, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Cuba are preparing ways to control precipitation -- hearkening back to something the X-Men guys thought up during the Cold War (see: Storm).
Last a summer, Chinese government officials worried that it might rain on their parade, literally, during the Olympics. They fired rockets filled with dry ice and silver iodide into the clouds, to make them cough up any raindrops before Beijing. The process might have backfired, causing two fierce snowstorms. But Moscow's mayor seems undeterred by the weather -- he is using the same technology to deflect snowfall from his city, having military planes spray iodide clouds.
Venezuela isn't as concerned with deflecting precipitation. Chavez is trying to increase rainfall on parched areas of his country. And rather than simply ordering the cloud seeding to take place, he is going to do it himself, going airborne with a group of Cuban scientists.
"I'm going in a plane. Any cloud that crosses me, I'll zap it so that it rains," Chavez said.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
For the past two years, 192 countries have participated in talks on the pressing issue of climate change, which will culminate in the Copenhagen summit next month. So far, more than 40 heads of state have agreed to attend, to act as negotiators and more importantly to demonstrate a firm commitment to ambitious targets. The growing list includes Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
But the RSVPs seem lost in the mail for the leaders of the countries considered to be the lynchpins of the deal -- China, the United States, and India. Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and Manmohan Singh haven't committed yet -- and they should. This summer, Obama indicated he would not attend because Congress has not yet passed climate change legislation. He's since waffled a bit, saying he would if his appearance would close the deal. It's weak tea, and those calling for him to attend include Al Gore and Brazil's da Silva, who used his weekly radio address to implore Obama and Hu to make the trip.
It is less likely that Hu or Singh will attend. Their developing countries have been good negotiators, but reticent to commit to ambitious targets. (China recently called for keeping the Kyoto protocol instead.) If Obama commits, though, they would be a lot more willing -- and that should be reason for the U.S. leader to consider heading across the pond.
In other climate news, the International Energy Agency released its full World Energy Outlook yesterday. One choice doomsday passage:
For every year that passes, the window for action on emissions over a given period becomes narrower -- and the costs of transforming the energy sector increase. We calculate that each year of delay before moving onto the emissions path consistent with a 2°C temperature increase would add approximately $500 billion to the global incremental investment cost...A delay of just a few years would probably render that goal completely out of reach.
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