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How to stop desertification?

Build a giant wall.  6,000 kilometers long.  Made out of sand.  Stuck together with bacteria.  No, seriously.

"The threat is desertification. My response is a sandstone wall made from solidified sand," said Mr Larsson, who describes himself as a dune architect.

The sand would be stabilised by flooding it with bacteria that can set it like concrete in a matter of hours.

Take his word for it; he's a dune architect.  And desertification is not something to mess around with.  It's poised to affect over 2 billion people in 140 countries if left unchecked.  But with a gigantic, bacteria-reinforced dune wall, buttressing a "Great Green Belt" of trees, unchecked it will not be.  As long as we can figure out minor details like politics, funding, and where to obtain "giant bacteria-filled balloons."

If this seems similar to ad hoc geo-engineering schemes of righting the climate, well, it does to me, too.  Except that I'm more comfortable building walls to stop desertification than, say, attaching tubes to giant zeppelins that pump the air full of sulfur dioxide to block the sun and cool the planet.

(image from flickr user John Spooner under a Creative Commons license)

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When a scientist gets all political

Elizabeth Kolbert has a pretty good profile of renowned (and now temporarily arrested) climate scientist James Hansen, unfortunately tucked away behind The New Yorker's digital subscriber wall. One major angle that comes out of the article is a sense that Hansen has drifted too far out of science and into politics, as captured by this graf, which I have assiduously and insidiously copied, word for word.

Hansen is also increasingly isolated among climate activists. "I view Jim Hansen as heroic as a scientist," Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said. "He was there at the beginning, he's faced all kinds of pressures politically, and he's done a terrific job, I think, of keeping focussed. But I wish he would stick to what he really knows. Because I don't think he has a realistic view of what is politically possible, or what the best policies would be to deal with this problem."

All this because, the following paragraph (which is too long for me to copy down) implies, Hansen favors a direct and stringent carbon tax over the more politically feasible "cap and trade" system. For one, favoring a carbon tax and a complete ban on coal-fired power plants, as Hansen does, does not strike me as an out-of-touch radical position. You can disagree on the policy merits of each, or on their political viability, but you can't begrudge the man for advocating for his solution.

More significantly, though, isn't the obstacle to getting tougher policies through, say, the U.S. Congress the fact that science has not been able to infuse itself in the politics of the thing? It seems to me that we need more James Hansen-esque super-scientists filling the political arena with ambitious arguments, not urging that they back down in favor of what is "politically possible." The future is going to be laughing at our "politics," I am sure.

(image from flickr user World Development Movement under a Creative Commons license)

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Moving U.S. and international climate legislation in tandem

Guest posting at Opinio Juris, climate expert Nigel Purvis answers a very tricky question -- indeed, what may prove to be the trickiest -- about U.S. efforts to slow climate change. Here's the problem in a nutshell:

U.S. domestic legislation must contribute to a genuine global solution but global arrangements must also fit or alter domestic political realities.

Every country, in fact, is going to have to align what is practically achievable in their domestic political systems to what is needed to stop global warming. It's just particularly tough in the United States, both because segments of our political system are so vehemently opposed to action on climate change and because our impact on the global environment has dwarfed that of any other country. Purvis' solution? It gets wonky, but the point is to synch up U.S. domestic and international legislation. Both are going to be tinkered, and the ultimate effectiveness of both will depend on future commitments and the rest of the world meeting its end of the bargain. An all-encompassing treaty, therefore -- which would also require a 2/3 vote in the Senate, rather than a simple majority in both houses -- would be more difficult to pass, less likely to match U.S. legislation, and possibly less effective.

It’s unrealistic to think Congress has the time and attention to take up domestic legislation and an international agreement separately (in whatever order). It is even more unrealistic to assume that an international treaty would be consistent with U.S. legislation and congressional wishes unless Congress has created in advance a process that helps ensure this alignment. In twenty years of climate diplomacy neither Congress nor the Senate has given the President of the World a clear blueprint for U.S. global leadership on climate change...America needs a well-defined plan for climate cooperation and that plan should have the force of law.

I encourage you to read the whole post.

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China races Europe to green

Europe: "We'll go completely green by 2050."

China: "2050 -- ha!  We'll out-green you by 2020."

Okay, not completely green, but still:

"We are now formulating a plan for development of renewable energy. We can be sure we will exceed the 15% target. We will at least reach 18%. Personally I think we could reach the target of having renewables provide 20% of total energy consumption."

This would surpass the goal that Europe has set out for 2020, which is even more impressive given how much more China pollutes.  And don't doubt the Chinese -- they already invest more in renewables than does Europe, and they're way ahead on that whole banning plastic bags thing, which they did over a year ago.

Maybe Japan -- whose paltry proposed emissions cuts left the UN's climate head "lost for words" -- can be spurred to more ambitious targets by its mainland neighbor...

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A Global Ban on Plastic Bags

Here's a bold idea:

Single-use plastic bags, a staple of American life, have got to go, the United Nations' top environmental official said Monday.

Although recycling bags is on the rise in the United States, an estimated 90 billion thin bags a year, most used to handle produce and groceries, go unrecycled. They were the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts at the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, a marine environmental group.

"Single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme. His office advises U.N. member states on environmental policies.

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Farming carbon

They're doing it in Kenya:

Village communities in Western Kenya alongside ones in Niger, Nigeria and China could become the key to unlocking the multi-billion dollar carbon markets for millions of farmers, foresters and conservationists across the developing world.

Catchments in and around Lake Victoria have been chosen as a test-bed for calculating how much carbon can be stored in trees and soils when the land is managed in a sustainable, climate-friendly ways.

The initiative, known as the Carbon Benefits Project, was launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Agroforestry Centre, along with a range of other key partners. The project is being funded by the Global Environment Facility.

This technique, known as carbon sequestration, is a win-win strategy, both economically and environmentally.  As part of the UN Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries can pay to offset carbon emissions by funding such sequestration schemes in the developing world.  These countries, in turn, benefit from the investment and from the more sustainable agricultural projects that it engenders.

(image from World Bank Photo Collection under a Creative Commons license)

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Time for Law of the Sea

Via Scott Paul at The Washington Note, Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems primed to make a concerted push to finally ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Law of the Sea treaty, with proponents on both sides of the aisle, from environmentalist groups and oil industries, in the science and the business communities, and both this president and the last one, is probably the biggest no-brainer of a treaty ever to be stalled by a vocal (and misguided) minority (treaties affirming basic rights for children notwithstanding).

The issue, it seems, is timing; and this doesn't look like just another legislative excuse, either:

The Republicans who oppose the treaty would likely use Senate procedure to prolong the debate, meaning it could take up to a week of floor time. Indeed, one of the more vocal opponents of the treaty, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said in an interview this week that he would "do all I could" to block the measure if it came to the Senate floor.

"It's called sovereignty. We seem to be in such a hurry to give up our sovereignty to multinational organizations; the Law of the Sea certainly fits into that," Inhofe said.

Well, in short, no, it doesn't. Law of the Sea in no way impinges U.S. sovereignty. If anything, it comes quite close to the opposite; ratifying the Law of the Sea allows the United States to claim rights in the Arctic, which other parties to the treaty are snapping up faster than the ice up there is melting. What Inhofe -- and the United States, if it still does not ratify the treaty -- is missing is that the Law of the Sea would effectively increase U.S. sovereignty, not detract from it.  And there’s little time left to seize the opportunity.

Scott optimistically thinks that Republicans won't be able to mount too much of an opposition because they "cannot afford another loss that highlights its commitment to dead dogma over the national interest." I'd like to think so, too, but the tried-and-true dogmatic canard used by Law of Sea opponents for over two decades -- the same sovereignty abrogation claim mouthed by Inhofe -- remains politically powerful. If Inhofe's cadre of Republicans unwisely chooses to take this up opposition to this popular treaty as a cause, they may not have a leg to stand on, but we can be sure that they will holler.

(image from flickr user Center for American Progress Action Fund under a Creative Commons license)

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Another Bush-Era Rule Revoked


The Obama administration on Tuesday revoked a rule enacted toward the end of the Bush administration that it said undermined protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Federal agencies must "once again consult with federal wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the two agencies that administer the ESA — before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species," the Interior and Commerce departments said in a statement.

"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees Fish and Wildlife.

Audublog reacts:

This is a huge victory for endangered species throughout the United States, and a huge victory for conservation groups, including Audubon, that argued strongly that the Bush Administration changes dangerously weakened protections for birds and other wildlife on the verge of extinction.

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Every Day Is Earth Day

From Dipnote, the State Department blog:

On April 22, people all over the world will celebrate Earth Day 2009 through various programs, activities and events. However, for the nearly 200 employees in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science (OES), every day is Earth Day as we work diligently to promote diplomacy through advancing environmental stewardship, encouraging economic growth, and promoting social development around the globe to foster a safer, more secure and hopeful world.
These lofty goals are carried out through programs and activities concerning infectious diseases, biodiversity, natural resource conservation, climate change, access to water, ocean and polar affairs, and science and technology cooperation.

Earth Day has a personal meaning to everyone who celebrates and participates in it - for me, it has significance for several reasons. First, I spent part of my youth working on my family's organic farm in Lebanon, learning the value of the earth in a deep sense. Second I became involved in activism canvassing for an environmental organization, which eventually led to a career in politics working to advance progressive causes. Finally, my grandfather, father and I were born on or within a couple of days of April 22. I lost them both over the past few years and honoring their birthdays/memories coincides with a day that is especially meaningful for my father, who was a prominent environmentalist in the Middle East.