Friday, December 9, 2011

Some hope and ambition found

The very last speaker at the COP 17 plenary session, American student Anjali Appadurai, speaking on behalf of the Youth NGO:


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Occupy Climate

One of the ruptures bubbling under the surface and threatening to tear negotiations apart every year at the climate talks is the divide between the have's and the have-nots.  In a formal way, this is one of the reasons why the biggest bloc of countries is the G77 and China representing about 130 countries falling into the broader UN category of "developing".  In many ways, this is simply a euphemism for "poor".  While individually the countries that make up the G77 (except perhaps China) have an equal voice in the UN process, they do not have the same sort of economic gravitas of countries like the United States, Germany, Japan, etc.  Speaking as a unified bloc ensures that they have some sort of coherence and influence beyond their GDP's.

In Durban, there have been some interesting challenges to the traditional north-south, rich-poor divide.  The BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) are a bloc of the largest economies of the developing world.  There have been rumblings that the normal unity that these countries share with the G77 is starting to fracture.  Because of their growing economic interests the BASIC countries seem to have a bit of an identity crisis. While they steadfastly hold to the position that the Annex I countries (the developed world) are historically responsible for the accumulation of Greenhouse Gasses in the atmosphere and therefore should be primarily responsible for funding any solution, they are also starting to realize the tangible benefits of becoming leading economic powers in their own right.  We now have rich, poor, and aspirational nations of the BASIC bloc. 

Many of these discussions come down to interpretations of fairness and justice. In many ways these same impulses are behind the Occupy movements that are occurring in various cities worldwide.  So it shouldn't be all that surprising perhaps that the two have been combined in Durban.  OccupyCOP17 has a presence outside the talks and is trying to link the broader Occupy movement more explicitly to the issue of using markets and the commodification of carbon to the processes of mass industrialization which generated this problem in the first place.With slogans like "keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole", OccupyCOP17 is another voice trying to maintain pressure on the industrialized countries to play fair. 

Carbon Markets: Trading with our Future from Occupy Cop17 on Vimeo.

Its not about climate

The COP/UNFCCC process has become a perpetual rerun of some kind of Jennifer Aniston movie: the dysfunction between the characters ends up not being about yogurt flavors - even though that's what they keep arguing about - but their insecure childhoods.

As we have often blogged about here, the ambassadors negotiating at COPs are doing so from positions of narrow, immediate economic and political self-interest, and seem increasingly divorced from the underlying reality of the climatic situation itself. Rajendra Pachauri, the chief scientific spokesman for the UNFCCC, makes this point in an interview yesterday with Amy Goodman - saying that there is "a complete absence of the discussion on scientific evidence," and that he would like each daily negotiating session to begin "with a very clear presentation on where we are going, what it’s going mean to different parts of the world, and what are the options available to us by which, at very low cost and, in some cases, negative cost, we can bring about a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases."

Certainly the ambassadors have heard these presentations, but they don't really seem to have sunk in. One of the things that bothers me the most when ambassadors do speak directly to climate is that it almost always lacks any climatological nuance - most often they describe a goal like "keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius" as if they could simply tell climatologists to turn the planet's thermostat dial once the bickering over the number had settled.

It's almost enough to make me long for the good old days of nuclear arms negotiations. At least in that case, the ambassadors had a black & white picture of the consequences of failure: planetary annihilation. That kind of scary vision does not seem to seriously hang over climate negotiations, even though that is exactly what the science points to. So perhaps Pachauri is right - for ambassadors to get serious, they have to constantly be presented with the gravity of their failure. We need something like cigarette packages with pictures of corroded lungs on them - something that will get into the political psyches and deter them from their short term fixes by making them face up to long term reality.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Environmental Outlook: Durban

This morning on the Diane Rehm radio program their environmental outlook series focused on the Climate talks in Durban. Given the relative lack of mainstream coverage of the issue in the American media, it's worth a listen.

It is a pretty good intro into the talks and especially the U.S. position on the talk even though there is the usual tangential drivel about the science being "unsettled".  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

NGO's call for greater US involvement

On Tuesday the over a dozen environmental organizations sent an open letter to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling out the Obama administration for not living up to what he promised prior to taking office. Despite the economic free-fall since moving into the White House, President Obama has been criticized openly since the Copenhagen talks for not being aggressive enough in pushing for an international solution as well as not using the bully pulpit of the presidency to offer more leadership even if US commitments are restricted by what Congress will tolerate.

An excerpt from the letter states:
In November, 2008, President-elect Obama gave an inspiring video address to the Bi-Partisan Governors Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles, California. He said that "Few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change,” and pledged that “once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change."

Three years later, America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress. U.S. positions on two major issues – the mandate for future negotiations and climate finance – threaten to impede in Durban the global cooperation so desperately needed to address the threat of climate change.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Politics of Climate

There are few concepts in science that I can think of that are more politically polarizing than climate. The story behind why this has occurred in some places (the US and the UK) and why it has never been the same kind of political issue in others (the rest of the world) is complicated. Most science focusing on the environment, in has some type of public policy element to it because people have an enormous impact (collectively and individually) on the world around us.

Climate is different. It has been elevated to the same level of political partisanship as the theory of evolution during the monkey trial of 1925. Though most scientists cringe at the notion that anything as complicated as a changing climate should be distilled down to simple binaries, it is nevertheless interesting to see how perceptions among Americans change over time. The Pew Research Center has been survey populations about the issue for years and their latest polling (released Dec. 1) shows some interesting results.

Global Forest Update

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently completed their latest global forest survey. In it, they conclude that while deforestation is indeed continuing around the world, it is not necessarily as bad as expected. Not surprisingly, most of the forest loss is concentrated in the tropics worldwide. The clip below is a short interview with Adam Gerrand of FAO describing the methodology and some of the major findings. Of note to Geographers, the latest assessment relies heavily on satellite surveys.

Given the prominence of the REDD program in the last couple rounds of climate talks, the ability to quickly and accurately assess forest cover (if not forest composition or density) is a valuable form of objective measurement that can be used to assess country claims regarding forest protection, degradation, and reforestation.