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Climate Change

A snapshot of the Climate landscape in two articles

Reading the NY Times this morning after the long weekend, I was immediately struck by two stories that seem to encapsulate the lay of the land in the lead up to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Spoiler alert: the message will be that we need to get in gear. But I’m going to keep driving that home.

First story, Yukio Hatoyama, the presumptive PM of Japan, according to the NY Times headline, has repeated his campaign pledge to cut emissions from 1990 levels by 25 percent in the next decade, a major commitment given the lack of action by others.  One small caveat, it’s contingent on commitments from other major polluters — less than completely helpful.  Nevertheless, you have to respect his flying in the face of a government report that said such a reduction could lead to the loss of 90 million jobs in Japan at a time when it’s suffering through a tough recession.

Now let’s leave the land of conditional commitments and climate politics where the argument is largely academic at this point and start getting real.  Second story, with a crushing headline: “Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes.” I imagine you can imagine where this is going.  A wrath-of-God-level drought is sweeping Kenya, “killing livestock, crops, and children.” WFP has said that 4 million need food and that “red lights are flashing across the country.”  This is wrecking the two main industries in Kenya, agriculture and tourism — big game is “keeling over from hunger” — which, of course, inflames an already fragile political situation.  This article goes into greater detail about the devastation and makes a more explicit connection to climate change, but I think you get the picture.

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The political imperative of Copenhagen

The British embassy here in Washington is soliciting opinions on why action must be taken to curb climate change.  The project is called 100 voices in 100 days, and in the months leading up to international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen the British foreign office is highlighting these opinions on their blog.  

Here’s my take, shot on location in Dupont Circle.

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Grab a paintbrush and geo-engineer

In addition to planting fake plastic trees, another simple “geo-engineering” measure, suggests Brad Plumer (via Yglesias), is to “paint all our roofs white, reflecting more of the sun’s heat and cooling the Earth.”

This obviously makes sense, and along with other standard home modification measures (solar panels, high-efficiency lighting, etc.), as well as some that are probably more instinctively unpopular — the fetish of having a perfectly green lawn (and not in the environmental sense) is not lying to die out soon — painting roofs while is indeed a “total no-brainer” in terms of reducing our environmental impact. The problem, as Matt recognizes, is that the farther that the geo-engineering scale tips toward the drastic (or the ridiculous), the less vigorously politicians feel compelled to push for costly reductions in carbon emissions.

The point of trying to reclaim the term “geo-engineering” from the province of futuristic tubes pumping sulfur dioxide into the air does seem worthwhile. If it’s about painting houses, everyone can be a “geo-engineer,” and maybe we won’t have to worry as much about those rogue environmentalist billionaires.

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RedState confuses strategy and policy in climate article

RedState commits a major misread of a Bloomberg article yesterday in which UN Foundation President (and former Clinton climate negotiator) Tim Wirth lays out the most salient strategy for passage of a climate bill in the U.S. Congress.  Bending the conversation for his own ideology (and misspelling “Wirth” three times in the process) Caleb Howe suggests — no, repeats in italics — that Senator Wirth thinks the bill is too broad as a matter of policy (not political strategy) and would not support the bill as such.

Presumably Howe knows the difference between when someone in the political sphere is discussing practical strategy (i.e. a “process story”) and when they’re advocating a position, but he doesn’t exhibit that precision here.  Though the Bloomberg piece isn’t very clear, logic would indicate the former in this case, particularly when, in a easily retrievable statement on the UN Foundation website, Wirth clearly says, “[Waxman-Markey] is the first step toward an energy policy for the 21st century. It will lead to technical innovation, good domestic jobs, less use of oil and more protection of the world we live in.” Sounds like support to me.

To be more clear, Wirth sent a letter around today in which he wrote:

Legislation in the Senate is the second step. The Senate will require a different combination to unlock the necessary votes to pass this critical legislation this year.  As noted in the Bloomberg story, I have repeatedly argued that to win passage, legislation must include a number of important elements: very strong efficiency standards, agriculture-related provisions, a package for nuclear power, a carbon emissions standard for new power generation, and a strong natural gas piece.

In other words, because “Senate passage of legislation is absolutely essential for U.S. security, economic and climate interests,” the Senate needs to do whatever it can to get the strongest bill it can passed. Due to the recent developments that Howe mentions in the first few words of the post, that might mean trimming the fat — as Wirth advocates.

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Global warming and an Arctic scramble

Canada, never known as being much of an agressor, is launching military exercises in its far North. They’ll involve land, air, and sea operations in Canada’s portion of the Arctic. This is one more consequence of global warming. Canada’s territory extends into the Arctic, and as ice sheets melt that territory will get more navigable. Canada, pretty clearly, wants to get in there first and claim anything interesting that opens up.

One thing that might open up is an easily navigated Northwest Passage. It’s a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, first pursued by Henry Hudson (–>) in 1610. Right now it’s mostly blocked by ice pack, but global warming might change that.

Looks like Canada wants to be ready, and stake its claim now. Canada’s not the only country that wants a piece of a newly thawed Arctic. Russia, Denmark, the US, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, are all claiming some level of sovereignty over any hypothetical passage. Resolving this is going to be messy. 

One potential loser in this scramble, though, may be the United States.  So long as the United States remains outside the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it remains exceedingly difficult for the United States to challenge claims made by other Artic countries. 

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If environmental NGOs wrote the Climate Treaty…

This is what it would look like.    The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, IndyACT – the League of Independent Activists, Germanwatch, David Suzuki Foundation, National Ecological Centre of Ukraine and “expert individuals from around the world” contributed to the report. 

I’m glad these NGOs offered this up.  It presents something of an idealized form of a climate change treaty that observers can weigh against the actual outcome document.  Some highlights include:

* The annual global carbon budget in 2020 from all sources of greenhouse gases (not counting those controlled by the Montréal Protocol) would be no higher than 36.1 Gt CO2e, bringing emissions down to roughly1990 levels and would need to be reduced to 7.2 Gt CO2e in 2050, in other words by 80 % below 1990 levels.

* A design proposal for a new institution – the Copenhagen Climate Facility – to manage the processes for emissions cuts, adaptation and forest protection under the new global treaty.

* A recipe for long-term action plans for both developed countries (Zero Carbon Action Plans, ZCAPs) and developing countries (Low Carbon Action Plans, LCAPs).

* Binding targets for Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) like Singapore, South Korea and Saudi Arabia in line with the Convention principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

 Check out the whole thing, in all 160 pages of legal text glory. 

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