U.S. regulators are moving to get rid of unhealthy trans fat from Americans' diets, but critics are warning that a common replacement, palm oil, is not that much healthier and also bad for the environment.
The push to eliminate added trans fats from the American diet has prompted an increase in the use of palm oil, which is harvested from the fruit of palm oil trees growing in the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia. The destruction of the forests threatens endangered species like orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and elephants, environmentalists say.
"The concern is that a lot of companies will switch to palm oil in order to reduce trans fats without thinking more broadly about the health and environmental implications of that," said Bill Barclay, Policy and Research Director for the Rainforest Action Network. "They're losing critical habitat that threatens their survival and that's largely driven by palm oil expansion."
Kiribati is sinking. With an average height above sea-level of 2 meters, the small Pacific island nation is losing land as rising sea levels associated with climate change slowly engulf its shoreline. Changing weather patterns and coastal flooding have jeopardized food security, endangered the fresh water supply, and forced communities to relocate further inland. And things are about to get much worse: Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, forecasts that the country may be uninhabitable by 2050.
But that dire prediction has done little to inspire sympathy for the island nation's population. On Tuesday, New Zealand's High Court rejected an asylum application from Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who appealed to the court on the basis that he and his family had no land to safely return to.
According to the court, his case fails to meet the criteria for refugee status. In his decision, Justice John Priestley wrote that "by returning to Kiribati, he would not suffer a sustained and systemic violation of his basic human rights such as the right to life ... or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing." The decision not only underscores the challenges for the vulnerable populations in the South Pacific, but the failures of international law to address the emerging crisis of climate refugees.
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As climate talks continue to grind along in Doha, food security would seem to be a major concern (especially as the U.N. issues warnings about the increasingly desperate food situation in Syria). However, the question of how farmers will feed the world's booming population while adjusting to changing weather patterns appears to have been sidelined even as this year's crippling drought in the U.S. sent grain prices to record highs.
That doesn't mean, however, that the race for food security hasn't already begun. As the authors of the recently released book The Global Farms Race argue, cash-rich but resource-poor governments have been quietly making controversial bids for the arable fields of foreign lands to shore up their own food security. Since the 2008 global food crisis, these "land grabs" -- considered an economic lifeline by supporters and neocolonialism by critics -- have been booming. The editors of the book note a 2011 Oxfam study that claimed nearly 230 million hectares of land have been sold or leased since 2001, mostly after 2008 (that's about the size of Western Europe). In one of the most publicized deals, the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics leased 3.2 million acres in Madagascar in 2008 to grow corn and palm oil so that the company could "ensure our food security." The deal, which was eventually canceled, was so unpopular domestically that it contributed to an uprising that helped to oust Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana.
While that deal fell apart, countless others have gone through, sparking debates over the economic, environmental, and political implications of exporting crops from food-insecure countries. As Michael Kugelman, co-editor of the book with Susan L. Levenstein, said at a book launch event at the Wilson Center on Tuesday, this development marks "a new phase of the global food crisis" -- one that may help countries importing food, but has grave implications for the countries hosting the crops. One of the disaster scenarios of these large-scale investments is that they will recreate scenes straight out of the Irish Potato Famine, during which crops were shipped out of the starving nation to feed wealthy foreigners. But equally urgent are the day-to-day economic, environmental, and political ramifications of the deals, from the effects of clearing forest to make way for new farmland to the implications of replacing food crops with biofuels.
Defenders of this type of direct foreign investment often tout the willingness of investors to share technology -- such as seeds for drought-resistant plants and satellite monitoring for crops -- with the host nation. However, corrupt governments willing to offer deals that don't benefit their own populations compromise these promises of development. (Unlike the land-grabs of yore, host governments solicit many of these deals. According to Kugelman, Pakistan offered a 100,000-strong security detail to protect the property of foreign investors and other countries have offered "fire sales" on land in the form of tax write-offs).
As the book acknowledges, these deals are most likely here to stay, so the focus is on minimizing the potential conflict over the contentious real estate. Many of the policy recommendations provided by the book lean toward community supported agriculture programs: Wealthy nations contracting directly with small-scale farmers to meet food needs while also providing them with the technology and capital to improve their yields. While that's all well and good, the willingness and ability of foreign investors to abide by these recommendations seems doubtful, especially given the difficulty of enforcing even well-established international economic rules.
The inability of the current multilateral climate talks to make meaningful headway on even a single key issue highlights the inherent problem with these arrangements. "You can have all the rules and regulations for land rights," contributor Derek Byerlee, the World Bank's former Rural Strategy advisor, said on Tuesday, "But you have to be able to implement them."
The first six months of this year have been the hottest on record since 1895. In June alone, we smashed more than 3,000 temperature records across the United States. It was the 328th consecutive month in which the average global temperature exceeded the 20th century mean. As Bill McKibben put it, "the odds of [that] occurring by simple chance were [one in] 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."
But if that much is obvious to most people who don't harbor deep suspicions about the value of science, the rate at which global warming is changing life on this planet may still come as a shock. Not only are the 3.7 million Americans living within a few feet of the coastline already experiencing more frequent flooding -- the result of rising sea levels -- but unusual weather patterns are likely to make food more expensive, and fast.
Figures released on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture predict substantial increases in food prices as a result of weather patterns in the Midwest -- the worst drought in nearly half a century.
The prices of chicken, beef, dairy, and eggs are all supposed to rise between three and five percentage points this year. Corn futures have already spiked nearly 50 percent over the last month to roughly $8.00 a bushel on fears that crops will be ruined. (The Department of Agriculture estimated that 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is in poor or very poor condition as a result of the drought.)
And it's not just the U.S. market that will be affected. The U.S. is the world's largest producer of corn -- exporting millions of tons every year to countries like Japan, Egypt, and China. In 2000, for example, Egypt imported 76 percent of its corn from the United States.
In 2011, revolutions erupted across the Arab world at least in part because of rising food prices. Recall that protesters in Tunisia wielded loaves of bread and Egypt suffered a spate of "bread riots" when grain prices spiked between 2007 and 2008. Now, more than a year after the uprisings, many Arab economies are struggling to get back on their feet. Significant increases in global food prices might well plunge them back into chaos.
But bad weather and worse crop yields in the U.S. are not the only forces driving grain prices skyward. Southern Europe, which typically supplies 16 percent of global corn exports, is having its own ecological disaster. Temperatures in the band that runs from eastern Italy to the Black Sea averaged about five degrees higher than normal last month, according to Bloomberg, baking corn crops that are in the critical pollination phase. Cedic Weber, whose company advises about 5,000 farmers in Europe, told Bloomberg, "in Europe we'll need to import a lot of wheat and corn...That's just adding to the problems we've got everywhere."
That doesn't bode well for the Egypts and the Tunisias of the world -- or for any other net importer of food, for that matter. As it happens, that's practically all of the Middle East and Africa, and much of Southeast Asia.
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman turned heads today when he declared at a Heritage Foundation event that there are "questions about the validity of" climate science and "not enough information right now to be able to formulate policies" to address climate change. While acknowledging the overwhelming consensus among scientists on climate change -- and even suggesting we defer to it -- Huntsman concluded that the debate still needs to "play out within the scientific community."
While the comments may seem like a subdued version of the climate-change skepticism expressed by nearly all of this year's Republican candidates, they're surprising given that Huntsman distanced himself from the GOP field in August by tweeting that he "trust[ed] scientists on global warming" and cautioning Republicans against becoming the "anti-science party." Huntsman has also renounced cap-and-trade schemes after implementing a cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse-gas emissions as governor of Utah. The "Energy Security" section on Huntsman's website stays quiet on climate change.
While Huntsman may be the latest Republican candidate to veer toward the climate skeptics after expressing more moderate positions, he's certainly not the first. Mitt Romney said "we don't know what's causing climate change" after previously saying humans were contributing to global warming. Ron Paul, who once allowed that human activity might play a role in climate change, now calls global warming a "hoax." And Newt Gingrich, who joined Nancy Pelosi in 2008 to urge government action on global warming (see below) now says the ad is "probably the dumbest single thing I've done in recent years. It is inexplicable." (In an interview with Glenn Beck today, Gingrich softened a bit, saying "I think that there is evidence on both sides of the climate change argument.")
These shifts in position, of course, could be in response to new evidence such as leaked emails from climate scientists, but they also smack of the need to play to the base during primaries. A Pew Survey last week found that while there has been "sharp increases in the percentages of independents and moderate and liberal Republicans who say there is solid evidence of global warming" since 2009, "opinions among conservative Republicans have changed little since 2009," with just over 30 percent believing there is solid evidence for climate change.
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Ulan Bator is funding a $730,000 ‘ice shield' initiative to counterbalance urban heat island effect and global warming and to lighten up the city's air conditioning bill. The experiment is sort of like a scotch on the rocks, except instead of scotch it's Mongolia, and instead of one cube or two it's the artificially super-frozen Tuul river. The hope is that a giant ice sheet -- known as a naled -- will store the winter's cold and cool the city through the hot months to come.
At the end of November, the engineers of the Mongolian ECOS & EMI firm will begin recreating the natural naled-forming process by drilling holes through the ice covering the river Tuul. This will allow water to rise through the ice sheet in the warmer daytime temperatures and spread across its surface. Then the new layers will freeze during the nights and create an ever thickening ice shelf.
While naleds have served industrial applications before, as military bridges in North Korea or as platforms for drilling in Russia, the Ulan Bator climate experiment is unprecedented. But if the Tuul successfully cools down the spring and summer as it gradually melts, providing water and a hospitable microclimate, the practice may become more common in places like Mongolia where the environmental conditions are right.
Worst comes to worst, with Winter Olympics only two years away, Mongolia's figure skaters have a new place to practice in the summer.
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On Wednesday, a fascinating and eclectic group of scientists, journalists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs converged at the "Energy Innovation 2010" conference in Washington, sponsored by the Innovation Technology Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute. Speakers and moderators included the New York Times' Andy Revkin, DOE Under Secretary of Energy Cathy Zoi, MIT's William Bonvillian, Tom Kerr of the International Energy Agency, NPR's Richard Harris, Time's Bryan Walsh, longtime staffers for Sens. Richard Lugar and Jeff Bingaman, and many others.
One thing that immediately struck me was the stark change in tone from recent past conferences: After two years of fairly disappointing outcomes at the U.N. climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun, and after watching hopes for cap-and-trade or other measures to regulate carbon fizzle in the U.S. Congress, a growing slice of those favoring investment in clean-energy are working hard to ditch the association with "climate," which now seems to many a losing political issue. As the Breakthrough Institute's Ted Nordhaus put it, "We need to free energy from the polarizing climate debate."
Thus, the new framing is that energy innovation is about building a stronger America; it's about leading the next global innovation wave. It's not about creating in the short-term "green jobs" (a term we don't hear so much anymore), but about recognizing that long-term economic prosperity will require greater investment in science and engineering education. (Tom Friedman was not present in person, but clearly in spirit.) And so, the ensuing conversations focused not on temperature targets or sea-level predictions, or even on the imperative of loosening America's dependence on Middle East oil, but largely on trying to sleuth out just what is innovation, where it comes from, and how to nurture it.
Over the last 100 years, America has had a pretty good track record at leading global innovation waves: developing and commercialzing the technologies for the combustion engine, aviation, the telephone, television, computer, and the Internet. How did that happen, and how can we make it happen again? The historic role of generous, sustained funding from the federal government, in particular the Department of Defense, in the early stages of developing the aforementioned technologies was several times mentioned. (Over at Time's Ecocentric blog, Bryan Walsh has posted a chart of government R & D investment over the last 50 years in various sectors, including basic energy research, which many argue is now too low.) The recent policy paper "Post-Partisan Power," co-published by theBreakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and American Enterprise Institute, is just one of myriad recent pleas for greater "federal innovation investment," which the authors now calculate at $4 billion and recommend bumping up to $25 billion. Needless to say, it's hard to argue against throwing more money at an important challenge, but also hard to imagine that money materializing in the next two years. But let's say it does. Where and how should we spend it?
One relevant upcoming report will be the International Atomic Energy's global study on green energy investments, which according to senior energy analyst Tom Kerr will look at both comparative national policies supporting basic and applied research and at policy tools to drive adoption of new technologies. When it comes to questions of how to build up a massive solar-panel manufacturing base in five years, we're collectively in awe of China. But when it comes to figuring out how to get utilities and customers to actually adopt new technologies at home, Kerr suggested we might learn more from boring Old Europe.
The big surprise out of yesterday's Brazilian election was the surprisingly strong showing of Green Party candidate Marina Silva, who beat the projections by picking up 19 percent of the vote and forced a runoff between the two leading candidates. Brazil's Greens, who haven't decided which of the remaining candidates to support yet, are in a pretty good mood:
Sirkis said the record vote meant the Green party would be able to force debate on crucial environmental issues in the lead up to the second round. Such issues included controversial changes to Brazil's forestry code, which environmentalists claim will further damage the Amazon rainforest, and Brazil's commitments on climate change in Copenhagen.
The O Dia newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, where Silva came second with 31.52% of the vote, described a "green tsunami" in its front-page headline.
"Marina Silva's face will not be on the ballot on October 31 but her electoral ghost will decide the second round," the newspaper said. "She has become the central figure in this campaign," said Altino Machado, an Amazon journalist and blogger who has known Silva since the late 1970s.
Silva resigned with quite a bit of publicity as Lula's environment minister in 2008 over the government's unwillingness to implement her anti-deforestation agenda. In addition to an embrace of Silva's compelling personal story -- she is the child of rubber-tappers from the Amazonian state of Acre and was illiterate until the age of 14 -- the Green's success shows the increasing political salience of environmental issues in Brazil, where 85 percent of the population views global climate change as a major problem. (Only 37 percent of Americans feel that way.)
It would be nice to think that Silva's success -- along with the recent collapse of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government over broken climate change promises -- is a sign that voters are starting to take environmental issues seriously at the ballot box. But it's probably a bit premature, and I somehow doubt we'll be seeing a "green tsunami" rolling across the American heartland in November.
The Hindustan Times reports that Pakistan's ambassador to the United States thinks that Indian military activity in the Himalayas may have contributed to his country's recent catastrophic floods:
In an unusual remark, Pakistan's Ambassador in Washington Hussain Haqqani has said that one of the reasons for recent devastating floods in his country could be human activity on the heavily-militarised Siachen glacier. Haqqani told the American lawmakers that snowmelt pattern on the glacier was changing over the past few years, because of intense military activities and scientists in his country were studying whether this was adding to warming factor leading to bizarre climatic changes. Besides, the activity on the glacier, Haqqani said other contributing reasons for unprecedented rains in his country could be greenhouse gas emissions.
I would imagine that the troops on Siachen are probably a drop in the bucket of the larger climate factors causing the floods, but Haqqani is probably right to worry about a connection between climate change and his country's security.
Update: Haqqani has responded to FP, saying the remark was taken out of context:
"The Hindustan Times picked on half a sentence in a detailed briefing that focused on the possible relationship between climate disruption and Pakistan's floods. I referred to militarization of the Siachen Glacier only in response to a question about glacier melting and only in the context of the possible connection between human activity and enhanced glacier melting."
ANNIRUDHA MOOKERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
If you're someone who's kept up at night by apocalyptic fears, there are certain obvious questions you might worry over as you toss and turn: for example, will Armageddon be the work of malevolent extraterrestrials (think Independence Day) or of an equally nasty monster, global warming (a la Day After Tomorrow)? But of the many things that might trouble a doomsday worry-wart, what to eat at the end of the world probably wouldn't make the list. But as it turns out, planning for the apocalypse menu is already well underway-- and this isn't just another gourmet gimmick.
In 2008, world leaders gathered together to herald the opening of the so-called, "doomsday vault," a vast cache of seed samples built inside a remote Arctic mountain. The vault -- complete with four sets of locked doors, a 410 ft tunnel, and armed guards (see above) -- was designed with the ambitious goal of eventually housing a seed sample from every species of edible crop in the world. Seeds have been steadily accumulating ever since: already more than half of million of the estimated 4.5 million total have been tucked away in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard.
The latest addition to the treasure chest arrived this week in the hands of improbable deliverymen: U.S. senators. Led by Benjamin Cardin, Democrat Senator from Maryland, the seven American delegates deposited an assortment of potent North American chili seeds inside the icy vault. The seeds -- which one expert admiringly praised for their "colorful names and histories" -- have long been protected as part of Native American tradition, but many fear that they may become the next victims in the worrisome trend of declining global crop diversity. Among the now-safe species are Wenk's Yellow Hots (a chameleon-like breed that changes color and flavor) and the San Juan Tsile (known for keeping diners on their toes: different peppers can be mild, medium, or hot -- and it's impossible to tell which is which).
So when the flood waters start rising and that nacho craving sets in, just head north.
Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images
If you're the kind of interior decorator who spends weeks agonizing between "white zinfandel" and "baby's breath" for the dining room walls (two hues indistinguishable to anyone who hasn't poured over the Benjamin Moore catalogue), you might consider enlisting in Eduardo Gold's latest project to combat the effects of climate change in the Peruvian Andes.
As one of 26 winners in last year's "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" competition, sponsored by the World Bank, Gold proposed an alternately ingenious and implausible plan to stall -- and perhaps even reverse -- the steady melting of Andean Glaciers: paint them white. Now, though Gold has yet to recieve his prize money, the wheels on this project are already turning in Peru. By coating the increasingly bare (and increasingly brown) rocks at the summits of the once-snowy mountain range, Gold hopes to simulate the eco-saving powers of a true glacial surface: the white veneer, if all goes according to plan, should reflect the sun's rays, sending them back out into the atmosphere and preventing warming effects at the Earth's surface. (If you're already clamoring against using chemical-laden paint in a pristine natural setting, rest assured: Gold's hue of white -- unlike Benjamin Moore's -- will be 100 percent environmentally friendly, composed of lime, egg white, and water.)
Gold "has no scientific qualifications" -- and it sometimes shows. At one point, he summarizes the science behind his proposal with a simple, and perhaps simplistic, formulation: "cold generates more cold, just as heat generates more heat." He also aspires to eventually "re-grow" the ebbing glacier -- an example, it's hard not to think, of ambitious entrepreneurship getting the best of realistic science.
Nevertheless, Gold "has studiously read up on glaciology," and his idea has won as many supporters as it has skeptics. The white-washing project appeals for obvious reasons to environmentalists: 22 percent of the glaciers in Peru have already disappeared in just three decades and doomsday forecasts predict the remaining 78 may be gone in twenty years. But Gold's biggest fans may be the Peruvians themselves.
Painting, after all, calls for painters: the venture is predicted to create 15,000 jobs over five years. Those who live in the glaciers' shadows (or, more aptly these days, their puddles) have experienced the dramatic shifts in climate in recent year, and -- for the sake of a return to normalcy -- seem to be willing to hear out even the most unusual proposals for change.
The work will be slow-going: Gold has set his sights on completing one summit, Chalon Sombrero, this summer, and then gradually moving on to other peaks. But with a page from Tom Sawyer's book, he just might be able to pick up the white-washing pace...
ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images
Let me say this again one last time: the story here is that the movement to stop climate change is being swift-boated right before our eyes. And just as Senator Kerry and the journalistic establishment failed to see the importance of the swift boat attacks and develop a counter strategy early, so the Times along with the climate change establishment is, yet again, missing the boat on a major piece of news.
Bingo! And he's right that the Times is missing that story. A tweet yesterday by Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin hints at why: "Journalism Review wonders why US media still not covering IPCC issues beyond old dispute narrative," Revkin writes, refering to a Columbia Journalism Review story on the matter. Revkin, having covered all these characters and debates many times before, especially over the "hockey stick" graph before, apparently has little interest in delving into them again. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to team Revkin up with, say, an Adam Nagourney type who can do the political side of this story.
One other note: U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern was asked today about the IPCC's screwups over Himalayan glaciers. Here's how he handled it:
Historian Walter Russell Mead dings the New York Times for allegedly not writing about the controversy over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its embattled leader Rajendra K. Pachauri, and a related story about stolen emails at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit and the fallout that has damaged the reputation of its head, Phil Jones. He points to a story in today's Washington Post headlined "Series of missteps by climate scientists threatens climate-change agenda." [UPDATE: See Mead's thoughtful response, and my response to his response.]
I have worked with Mead and know him as a careful writer and steward of the facts. So I will assume he's not fully informed, and I hope that he'll change his mind after reading this. Because the real story here could just as easily be headlined, "Climate skeptics seize on editing errors, poor IPCC communications to manipulate willing British press and credulous blogosphere." (For the scientific take and full context for what is happening, read this careful explanation by a group of climate scientists at RealClimate.org.)
I'm seeing a lot of spin out there from environmental advocates and supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama about last weekend's climate-change denouement in Copenhagen. The gist of their argument is that the summit may not have been a smash success, but it was the beginning of a process that will lead to good things down the road.
I don't agree with this view -- I'm much more sympathetic to Michael Levi's realization that "the United Nations climate negotiations will never quite work" -- but I do respect those who hold it.
Prices for carbon permits for December 2010 delivery, the benchmark contract for pricing European permits, dropped nearly 10 per cent in early trading, before recovering to end the day 8.3 per cent lower at €12.41.
One dealer described the market as like “a falling knife” but said that a rise in European gas prices had helped to support the carbon market.
UN-backed certified emissions reductions for December 2010 delivery fell 7.9 per cent to a low of €10.89 a tonne, a six-month low.
I'm not sure an appearance by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe was really needed to ensure that the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen ends in failure. The delegates seem to be perfectly capable of taking care of that inevitability on their own.
Inhofe is an idiot and his consistent misrepesentation of climate science is disreputable, but I have to say that he made some good points here in his Copenhagen press conference:
In the U.S. Senate, a senator or group of senators can block legislation through what's called a filibuster...Breaking a filibuster requires 60 votes. As is obvious, McCain-Lieberman supporters, even with a bill full of holes and exemptions-in other words, a pale shadow of its former self-didn't even come close to crossing that threshold." They needed 60, they got only 44.
Here we are six years later, and nothing has changed: cap-and-trade failed in 2003, it failed in 2005, and it failed in 2008. As we look ahead, an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill stands no chance of passing. I want to be sure the 191 countries understand this: again, an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill stands no chance of passing.
Mind you, Inhofe is crowing about this situation, not bemoaning it. And then he follows with a bunch of misleading claims about "ClimateGate," almost of all of which were demolished by this "exhaustive" AP investigation.
I think he's also wrong in claiming that there is "no chance" the Senate will pass some sort of cap-and-trade bill. I think there will be a bill at some point next year.
That said, it just might get so watered down in the process of getting to 60 votes that it becomes a meaningless exercise. A lot of folks who follow the climate-change issue closely say: that's fine, let's just get SOMETHING passed and we can always ratchet the caps down later. But if the narrative becomes that the last bill didn't "work," so why bother passing legislation that might hurt the U.S. economy without saving the planet, then that strategy will backfire.
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Like many in Washington, I spent Saturday night at home watching C-SPAN as the House debated and ultimately passed a major healthcare reform bill. It was about as exciting as the legislative process gets: a special weekend session, with heated debate over a controversial amendment, impassioned statements from virtually every House heavyweight, and a vote that came down to a thin margin, with a single crossover.
This banner moment marks the closest that the United States has ever come to overhauling its woefully expensive, inefficient, and incomplete healthcare system -- and it felt like a victory. But it marks just one step in what promises to be a long and detailed legislative process. Now, the Senate votes on its healthcare bill, then the two bills are merged, and then both chambers vote again. The remaining process will be highly prone to filibusters from Republicans (and, sigh, Joe Lieberman), and will require extensive negotiation. And this comes after months of wrangling in the Senate and House committees.
While healthcare reform takes its time to pass, two other big bills wait on the sidelines, and governments across the globe wait with them. Indeed, the Senate is, in effect, filibustering the world.
The first back-burnered issue is immigration reform. During his campaign, Obama promised that he would enact comprehensive legislation during his first year in office. It was a heady pledge -- President George W. Bush tried to pass reform during his final term in office, and failed. But it won Obama the support of organizations like the National Council of La Raza and plaudits from governments in Central America, Mexico, and Canada. Then, earlier this year, Obama ingloriously shelved it, laying down a big-bill priority rank with immigration reform taking the bronze. Congress hasn't even started to tackle the issue -- no bills, cosigners, or committee votes yet -- spurring disappointment across the United States' borders and further afield.
The second and vastly more important issue is cap and trade. The House bill passed in June, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing it onto the floor as soon as she had the votes. But leaders in the White House and Congress decided to cool it to preserve votes for healthcare, and Congress won't make law until sometime early next year.
This delay means that the United States will be something of a weak actor at next month's U.N. Copenhagen conference on climate change. Global leaders will hash out the details of a worldwide plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to attempt to stave off anthropogenic climate disaster. Obama will not be one of them because of, well, Congress.
The United States has said any climate change agreements it makes must comport with U.S. law, and U.S. law isn't ready yet. So, Obama has said he will not attend. In the meantime, the United States has actually attempted to weaken many of the most important measures. Washington, under Obama as under Bush, remains the most recalcitrant major player on climate change, even more so than big-emitter Beijing.
European governments, as well as many others, are bewildered if not piqued. During her address to both chambers of Congress last week, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implored lawmakers to tackle climate change "without delay." It was a futile plea, and half of the lawmakers didn't bother to clap.
This isn't to say that Washington should have different legislative priorities, or should have put climate change or immigration reform before healthcare. It isn't to say that Obama should have stepped out on those issues before Congress enacted law. It isn't even to say that Congress should move faster, though I often wish it would.
It is simply to note that the United States is used to waiting for its legislative process to work. The rest of the world isn't. On climate change, especially, the Senate is not just holding up U.S. legislation, but global action. And it remains unclear what that means for foreign policy.
Dan Drezner howls at the Maldives government's brilliant stunt of holding an underwater cabinet meeting (more photos here and here) to make the case that "if we can't save the Maldives today, you can't save the rest of the world tomorrow," and wonders if "a rational, cost-benefit analysis of how to allocate climate change resources between mitigation and adaptation" would really redound to the benefit of such small-island countries.
I doubt it -- and the world has already pretty much already decided to let these nations drown. Back in 2007, when I attended the U.N.'s high-level meeting on climate change, one of the issues on the table was what level of global warming we could all tolerate. Was it 1 degree celsius, which was already upon us? One-point-five? Two?
The island countries, which have their own caucus in the General Assembly, were calling for 1.5 degrees (and still are). I remember being shocked, however, at their level of disorganization. Given that climate change is such an existential threat to them, why did they only announce their press conference on the matter 15 minutes beforehand, and why did they only send their U.N. ambassadors, rather than the heads of state? I think I was one of three members of the press in attendance.
The Maldives' new president, Mohammed Nasheed, seems a little more media-savvy than his predecessor, the dictator Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. He has to be: The highest point in the Maldives is just under 8 feet, and the country's average elevation is somewhere between 4 and 7 feet. But that's the average -- most of the country is still lower than that, and the U.N.'s climate panel estimated in 2007 that sea levels would rise anywhere from 7.2 to 23.2 inches, which would make the Maldives extremely vulnerable to storm surges or major sea swells (it should be noted that the U.N. report emphasized that its sea-level projections were "not an upper bound"). If current trends hold, by the end of this century, the bulk of the country's 300,000 inhabitants will have to find other places to live.
But in calling for the 1.5 degree target, Nasheed seems to be fighting a battle he's already lost. In the end, a rough scientific and political consensus has settled around 2 degrees -- and even with that, very little has been done to make the emissions cuts needed, and there are certainly no binding commitments to do so. Would 2 degrees of warming doom the Maldives? I don't know. But it sure looks to me like the world's power brokers are willing to roll the dice on this one.
Climate change conference The Manchester Report has revealed a surprising suggestion not only to curb, but also to reverse carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere: Add lime to seawater.
Oceans play a crucial role in slowing down the process of global warming, currently by absorbing about half of the CO2 released into the air by human activity every year. Doing so, however, dramatically increases marine acidity and threatens ecosystems.
Advocates of the Cquestrate project insist that the added lime produced from heating limestone will not only boost the amount of CO2 absorbed, but will also reduce the water's acidity. If the technique were employed on a large enough scale, proponents argue that it would be possible to return global carbon dioxide levels to their pre-Industrial Revolution amounts. The project's founder Tim Kruger said:
It is essential that we reduce our emissions, but that may not be enough. We need a plan B to actually reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
I see that the Obama administration is indicating some flexibility on its climate change plans. Specifically, it might be willing to delay forcing businesses affected by a future cap and trade system to pay for carbon permits. Instead, an auction system would be phased in over time.
I used to think to accept anything less than a 100 percent auction of carbon permits was scandalous. As FP noted in September:
Cap-and-trade systems work by putting a ceiling on carbon emissions, and then allocating permits that give companies the right to pollute a given amount. From an environmental standpoint, it doesn’t much matter how you initially distribute the permits, as long as the cap is stringent enough. But most economists think that, unless you first auction these off in a transparent process, you’re basically enabling a massive corporate giveaway, raising the likelihood that well-connected corporations or industries will get sweetheart deals, and failing to capture revenue that can pay for other priorities.
I was disabused of this notion today by Stuart Eizenstat, a former diplomat who negotiated the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the Climate administration. Eizenstat and I served on a panel this morning at the Carbon TradeEx America conference, a really interesting meeting devoted to exploring the future direction of climate change and its impact on policy, business, and, of course, the environment.
Eizenstat, who testifies frequently on Capitol Hill, was adamant that 100 percent auction was a nonstarter in Congress. There was no way, he said, that corporations would sign on to a climate change regime if they weren't given enough time to adjust to the costs they would incur.
That said, I wonder why the White House would want to signal flexibility this early in the game. Would it be tactically smarter to play your cards closer to your chest in the hopes of getting a better deal from industry in the end? Or is it wiser to try and get business on board from the beginning, so that the opposition doesn't have time to coalesce and build? Readers, what do you think?
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Who'd have guessed it? U.S. President George W. Bush might be going down as the greatest protector of the seas ever. Later today, he is to announce the establishment of the "largest area of protected sea in the world." Commercial fishing and mining will be largely prohibited in protected zones of the remote Pacific that include some of the most biologically diverse locations on Earth.
Critics say that any benefit from the establishment of protected areas will be cancelled out by the effects of greenhouse gases and climate change. Nevertheless, Joshua Reichert of the Pew Environment Group told the BBC that Bush has "protected more special places in the sea than any other person in history."
It just might be another achievement to add to Bush's legacy.
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Sesame Street, the U.S. television show, used to have a segment called "one of these things is not like the others."
Can you spot the anomoly in this list?
You guessed it: Steven Chu is the only name on this list that is followed by the letters P, h, and D. He's also the only one with a Nobel Prize, and the only one who has run a major laboratory. Frankly, he is a badass -- and he will be looking to get things done on climate change.
The current U.S. energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, is the only other scientist on the list, but he has an Sc.D degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Basically, it's the same thing as a Ph.D, but Bodman has long since stopped practicing chemical engineering.
Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
The lede of the day was written by Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times, who grabbed my attention with this first sentence:
A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations.
Interstingly, the report (pdf), put together by the United Nations Environment Program, says that the "atmospheric brown clouds" (ABCs) could be mitigating the impact of climate change on a global basis by as much as 80 percent, though they are in some places amplifying the impacts of greenhouse gases and on the whole are a Very Bad Thing.
Below is a graphic showing different "plumes" where the brown clouds peaked at different times of the year from 2001 to 2003:
The report names 13 "mega-city ABC hotspots": Bangkok, Beijing, Cairo, Dhaka, Karachi (sorry, guys), Kolkata, Lagos, Mumbai, New Delhi, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tehran.
Having lived in Cairo for about a year and a half, I can testify that the air there is simply awful. I used to start coughing as my plane was landing at the airport outside of town, if only out of habit.
(Hat tip: Matt Yglesias)
Cue the "hot air" jokes.
The United Nations plans to go casual for the month of August in a bid to cut back on electricity use. The idea, inspired by a similar initiative in Japan called "Cool Biz," is that you can turn down the air conditioning when everybody isn't wearing wool and stuffy ties:
The campaign calls for raising the thermostats in most parts of the U.N. Secretariat building from 22.2 C to 25 C  and from 21.1 C to 23.9 C [75 F] in the world body's conference rooms.
The initiative would save some 2 million tons of steam during the month of August, or the equivalent of 300 tons of carbon dioxide in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, [a U.N. spokesman] said.
I love this quip from David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador:
If the rise in the temperature could cut back on the interminable negotiations running late into the evening for often disappointing results, then the outcome of the initiative would be a very good one."
If it works, the U.N. plans to ask its employees to bundle up in the winter. Now if they can just take care of that smoking problem...
This week's Tuesday Map comes compliments of a new atlas, released today by the United Nations Environment Program. "Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment," paints a grim picture of the African landscape, as climate change, deforestation, urban pollution, and refugee flows are all taking their toll.
Vegetation and forests in the Jebel Marra foothills in Western Sudan (below) have declined significantly from 1972 (left) to 2006 (right). The authors of the study attribute this change in part to an "influx of refugees from drought and conflict in Northern Darfur." Reuters reports that deforestation is occurring in Africa at twice the world rate.
While many people are familiar with the snows of Kilimanjaro, or lack thereof, climate change appears to be having an impact on smaller peaks as well. The second map illustrates a noticeable shrinking of the Rwenzori Glaciers, which border Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over just an 18-year period.
Explore more climate change maps -- both in Africa and worldwide -- at UNEP's Web site.
I can't imagine how La Scala intends to stage An Inconvenient Truth:
La Scala officials say the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli has been commissioned to produce an opera on the international multiformat hit for the 2011 season at the Milan opera house. The composer is currently artistic director of the Arena in Verona.
After all, the movie was basically an extended PowerPoint presentation. Are they going to put Al Gore's slides up where the libretto usually goes? And what's the plot?
Of course, this only proves that global warming is fake:
For an hour or so Greenland had its own mighty waterfall, flowing secretly at three times the volume of Niagara. A meltwater lake on the surface of a glacier suddenly emptied in July 2006, sending millions of gallons of water through cracks in the ice sheet to the ground where it could affect the movement of the ice.
The lake covered 2.2 square miles near the western edge of the ice sheet and took about 24 hours to drain.
During the most rapid 90 minutes, water was flowing out of the lake at a rate of 2.3 million gallons per second, according to researchers led by Sarah Das of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass.
Under international convention, the minimum flow of Niagara Falls in summer is about 750,000 gallons per second.
Germany's environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, issued a statement today with some strong criticism for George W. Bush's big climate change speech. But the harshest words were actually in the title of his press release:
Gabriel criticises Bush's Neanderthal speech. Losership, not Leadership".
With a title like that, why even bother with a statement?
(Hat tip: The Lede)
President Bush's call today to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 shouldn't be seen as any kind of White House policy shift.
If you think about it, he's really saying that it's fine for emissions to grow until then. Bush's speech today was a fairly vague and empty statement of intent, lacking in any plan to actually set specific emissions targets or reduce the United States' output. And when it does come time to halt growth, what Bush hails are the tired fallbacks: fuel-economy standards (not very helpful) and those frequently hyped and rarely identified "new technologies" that will surely do something. And since something's on the way, there's surely no need to reduce or cap today. Or so goes the thinking.
Bush devoted the majority of his remarks to what he still finds wrong with the emissions debate, making it clear how truly opposed he is to any type of regulation. He threw in a jab at the Supreme Court and its "unelected judges" for good measure:
The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate change. For example, under a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.
If these laws are stretched beyond their original intent, they could override the programs Congress just adopted, and force the government to regulate more than just power plant emissions. They could also force the government to regulate smaller users and producers of energy from schools and stores to hospitals and apartment buildings. [...]
Decisions with such far-reaching impact should not be left to unelected regulators and judges. (my emphasis)
In short, the climate speech doesn't really alter the political landscape on the issue. Not a surprise, really, though I'd expected something a little more ground-shifting this morning when I read the WSJ's advance on the speech and noticed the hilariously sad Bush hedcut included therein. That Bush looks like he's had to make concessions. Apparently, though, 3-D George didn't agree.
(On a side note about hilarious hedcuts, who at the WSJ hates Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai? Because this is not a flattering rendering.)
J. Scott Armstrong, a forecasting expert and climate-change skeptic from the Wharton School of Business, thinks he is smarter than former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. Armstrong believes he can "make more accurate forecasts of annual mean temperatures than those that can be produced by current climate models," and has repeatedly challenged Gore to put money on the proposition. Today is Gore's deadline to take him up on the wager.
If Gore accepted the bet, both men would deposit $10,000 into an escrow account that would be distributed by the winner to the charity of his choice in 2018, when the contest would end. The prize goes to whomever has the closest-to-accurate predictions of average temperature, over one to 10-year horizons, at 10 independently chosen weather stations around the globe over the course of the next decade.
Armstrong's Global Warming Challenge came in June of last year, as Gore revelled in the success of his film An Inconvenient Truth and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was preparing its most grim predictions on climate change to date. Armstrong and a colleague published a paper (pdf) entitled "Global Warming: Forecasts by Scientists Versus Scientific Forecasts" blasting the IPCC models as unscientific.
Armstrong initially challenged the former veep to answer the wager by December 1, 2007, but was rebuffed by Gore's representatives. Armstrong, in a letter to Gore, then granted an extention of the wager deadline until today, March 26th, 2008. Gore has again declined (click here for the Armstrong's account of the exchange between the two camps), but he still has a few hours in which to change his mind.
I hope he doesn't. Gore is right to dismiss this antagonistic offer. Subjecting complex scientific issues to a game of gotcha only heightens the conflict surrounding the issue, and doesn't bring us any closer to bridging political divides or solving problems that most scientists agree will plague us for generations to come.
But if Armstrong wants people to put their money where their mouths are, perhaps he would agree to this wager: Both he and Gore can purchase vacation homes of equal value, Gore's house on high ground, and Armstrong's on the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu. Then we'll see who's really full of hot air.
Increasing global demand for food along with biofuels production has meant that rising food prices have been hitting our paychecks hard. But the news will likely only get worse.
In a recently released National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and Michael J. Roberts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal the effects of climate change on crop yields in the United States. The results are alarming: According to Schlenker and Roberts's model, which employs data on crop yields in the United States between 1950 and 2004 along with a matching weather/temperature data set, yields are likely to diminish significantly by the end of the century.
Although yields for corn and soybeans increase until temperatures reach about 29° Celcius and yields for cotton increase until about 33° Celcius, temperatures above these thresholds result in a rapid and steep decline thereafter. Global warming is expected to shift temperatures upward and produce more damaging heatwaves. As a result, Schlenker and Roberts predict that corn yields will decrease by 44 percent, soybean yields will drop by 33-34 percent, and cotton yields will decline by 26 to 31 percent -- and that's just under the "slow warming" scenario of the model. If the model assumes "quick warming," the news is even more dire. Corn, soybean, and cotton yields will plummet by 79-80 percent, 71 to 72 percent, and 60 to 78 percent respectively.
To make matters worse, "hotter southern [U.S.] states exhibit the same threshold as cooler states in the north, suggesting there is limited potential for adaptations." In other words, the prospect of crops evolving quickly to adapt to a warmer environment looks slim. Technology, too, appears unlikely to save the day just yet. The authors conclude, "[W]e find no evidence that technological progress increased heat tolerance over the last 55 years: while average yields have gone up almost threefold, the breakpoint where temperatures become harmful is the same in later periods as it is in earlier periods." As the Earth gets hotter, expect inflation to soar. Time to stock up on corn, soybean, and cotton products.
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