I wrote the following commentary for Blue Ridge Press, a national syndication service. (NJToday was one of the places it ran.)
With Feds Failing, Climate Change Action Goes Local
In December, the nations of the world agreed once again to do nothing about climate change.
And just as the science of climate change is more clear than ever, so too, are the politics: Whether led by President George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the United States is thwarting meaningful action on climate change. As people around the world lose faith in the U.S. government, it’s long past time for individual Americans to think rationally—about both science and economics. It’s time to act with compassion toward those whose lives are already being affected by climate change.
Following the closing of the United Nations climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, I shared an airport shuttle with a woman from South Africa. Delegates from every country except Bolivia had just agreed again to delay action on everything from carbon emissions reductions to funding adaptation projects in developing countries, where the impacts of climate change are most severe. She’s disappointed: “They agreed last night that they were pleased to be going home,” she said.
Adapting to climate change isn’t about saving the environment, she says. It’s about economics and survival. But the American people tell their leaders not to act, she says. In a democracy, after all, elected leaders carry out the wishes of citizens.
That wasn’t the first conversation I had in Cancún with someone baffled by U.S. behavior. Time and again, whether riding the bus, standing in security lines, or eating dinner, I met people from across the world who asked me what is happening in America.
They do not understand why the U.S. government has for 20 years challenged a binding international agreement to cut carbon emissions, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and help developing nations deal with drought, rising seas, or floods that destroy infrastructure. People from Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Panama, Columbia, India and across the European Union asked me why the American people don’t care about climate change.
Despite the actions of my government, I try to explain that many Americans do care about climate change.
States like California are trying to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create incentives that help both businesses and regulators by reducing emissions and boosting the clean energy economy. A new rule in New Mexico ensures that soon the state’s polluters will have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by three percent a year from 2010 levels. And the state approved a separate proposal paving the way for participating in a cap-and-trade plan under which 11 states and Canadian provinces have agreed to establish a regional, market-based emission reduction program.
In November, eight municipalities—Boston, Cambridge, Grand Rapids, Florida’s Lee County, Flagstaff, Miami-Dade, San Francisco and Tucson—received funding from a nonprofit organization to participate in a program to help local governments prepare for climate-change impacts that are already occurring. Connecticut, Maine, Colorado, and Florida already have statewide action plans to deal with climate change; others are studying its impacts and economic consequences.
In the United States, the significant action on climate change—whether state laws mandating the use of renewable energy or municipal improvements to public transportation systems and bike routes—is happening at a local level. But it’s not nearly enough. Citizens need to urge the federal government to act. And we each have work to do within our own lives.
Speaking during the UN’s opening ceremony, the chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, said that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. But he also pointed out that lifestyle changes can contribute to climate change mitigation.
In other words, individual choices matter. Each of us can cut our consumption of electricity and fossil fuels. Consumer choices matter, as do investments in companies that act responsibility and reduce their carbon footprints.
Most of the people I met in Cancún have already accepted that the U.S. government will never lead on climate change. But they still wonder why the American people fall for the histrionics of industry-funded climate change deniers when the science of climate change is clear. They are waiting for Americans to pay attention to the rising seas, the Amazon’s burning forests and the glaciers melting from mountains across the globe. They are waiting for citizens to demand that the United States become a responsible member of the international community.
But they’re not going to wait for long. That became painfully clear to me as I headed toward the airport with my fellow South African passenger.
“Everyone used to want to be like America,” she said. “I think that is not the case anymore.”
Laura Paskus reported from COP 16 in Cancún as an Earth Journalism Network 2010 Climate Media Fellow. EJN is a project of Internews, an international media development organization. This is the project’s first year bringing U.S. journalists to the UN climate talks.Comment on this column at www.blueridgepress.com.
Unfortunately between my deadline and press time, New Mexico’s new governor nominated a climate change skeptic, Jack Schmitt, to the head of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
To understand why that’s an alarming prospect for the state, read an open letter to Schmitt on the brand-new blog, Puckerclust. That blog, run by Mark Boslough, is dedicated to “shining a spotlight on climate denialism.” Boslough’s letter is excellent, and everyone should go read it.
Gov. Martinez has also terminated all but one member of the state’s Environmental Improvement Board–which passed the greenhouse gas emissions reductions rules I mentioned within the commentary.
Then on Saturday, I learned of Martinez’s nomination to lead the state’s Environment Department–that is, the department in charge of protecting the state’s water and air quality and of regulating and inspecting pollutors.
According to Democracy New Mexico, nominee F. David Martin is an adjunct associate professor in the Petroleum Engineering Department at New Mexico Tech. He is also the former director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center.
Yesterday, I was emailing with a friend of mine about the radical shift here in New Mexico, and she wrote: “Wow! Is NM trying to get in a race with TX to the bottom? We have a chicken poultry scientist–how to grow a chicken in a box kind of science–as head of our enviro. I think you guys topped us.”
Many people to the right of center argue that environmental regulation thwarts economic growth. But in Texas–where drilling is rampant, environmental protections lax and the state has even opposed the US Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases–the state is running a $25 billion deficit over the next two years.
At any rate, I didn’t mean to write this long a post, but the last line of my commentary seems especially relevant to me this weekend. I have a heavy, heavy heart with the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ and others in Tucson, and the murder of nine-year old Christina Taylor Greene.
It’s easy to feel angry or fearful when something like that happens. And I’m glad I already had a new mantra in place for 2011: “I choose love, I choose truth, I choose love.”
I’m not being naive or idealistic. Nor does acting out of love mean backing down from a challenge. As I explained to my daughter recently: Stand up for what’s right, but do so because you love the person or place or thing you are protecting, not because you hate the “bad guy” or the system or the force that is causing harm.
Let’s face it, this has been a difficult beginning to the year. But I woke up this morning believing that love–for our homelands and landscapes and for one another–offers the only true way forward. That’s true whether we’re talking about Americans finally understanding how climate change is already impacting people across the globe, ensuring environmental protections here in New Mexico–or coming together as a nation in a time of crisis.
Last month, in a story about climate change for the Santa Fe Reporter, I posed the question: Will politics trump science when it comes to New Mexico, too?
Yesterday, it became clear that answer is “yes.”
To back up a bit, I wrote that SFR story while in Cancun for the United Nations climate talks, where the United States government had thwarted action on climate change–for just about the 20th year in a row. (No, sadly, I’m not exaggerating.)
But back home in New Mexico, the state’s Environmental Improvement Board had just passed a second proposal related to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
The two proposals were by no means perfect–and the state still had a long way to go in terms of realistically cutting emissions. But it was a step forward. A step forward urged by people who care about the state, and passed by people who understood that the climate is already changing and those changes are going to impact the future of the state. Members of the EIB made a decision based not only on the environmental impacts of climate change, but on the economic impacts of not doing anything about the problem.
But on Tuesday, the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell wrote that New Mexico’s new governor, Susana Martinez, terminated all the appointed members of the EIB–because they had voted to approve the state’s participation in a regional cap-and-trade program.
According to Terrell, Martinez sent a letter to members that read:
Thank you for your service to the State of New Mexico by serving on the Environmental Improvement Board. This letter is to inform you that I am removing you as a member of the Environmental Improvement Board. Your removal is effective immediately.
(The press release he mentions is not yet on the governor’s website, but perhaps it will be soon.)
Now, just in case you’re one of those folks who think the EIB members (and anyone who cares about dealing with climate change) are just a bunch of enviro-crazies running around kissing rabbits and hugging trees–and hell-bent on destroying the state’s economy–check out this report from Sandia National Laboratories (one of the state’s two nuclear labs and a place not necessarily known for its radical or liberal tendencies): “Executive Summary for Assessing the Near-Term Risks of Climate Uncertainty: Interdependencies among the US States.”
In that report, released in May, Sandia estimated the economic impacts of climate change on a national and state-by-state level—and found that policy makers are taking economic risks by not addressing climate change.
We determine the industry-level contribution to the gross domestic product and employment impacts at the state level, as well as interstate population migration, effects on personal income, and consequences for the U.S. trade balance. We show that the mean or average risk of damage to the U.S. economy from climate change, at the national level, is on the order of $1 trillion over the next 40 years, with losses in employment equivalent to nearly 7 million full-time jobs.
You can find the New Mexico stats on page 20. Go read ‘em for yourself. And then decide if the new governor’s move was a smart one.
(And just FYI, here’s a link to a story from 2008, laying out some of the impacts we’re already experiencing in New Mexico.)
I’ll continue to blog on a more personal level on this site, but you can also read my newsier reports from COP 16 over at the NMI site:
On my bus ride to the COP 16 press conferences this morning, I sat next to a delegate from Senegal. We exchanged the usual pleasantries—Who are you with? Where are you from? How are things going for you in Cancun?—and then got down to the business of talking about COP 16.
“Will President Obama come, do you think?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think he’s planning on that.”
My answer was based on a conversation with an American who works for an NGO in the US a few days earlier. “What’s he going to do?” he asked me, laughing when I said I thought that at the very least it would be a nice gesture to the Mexican presidency . “What’s he going to do? Say ‘Hey guys! What’s in this door?”
(He was referring, by the way, to last year’s meetings at Copenhagen, when Obama walked into a private meeting of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.)
At any rate, the gentleman from Senegal and I spent the rest of the bus ride talking about what’s happening on the ground in Senegal (rising temperatures, increasingly long episodes of drought) and what Senegal was hoping for from COP 16 (perhaps some progress on adaptation.)
Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about the climate change negotiations knows that the United States has been holding up progress for almost 20 years now, many people don’t acknowledge that fact in polite company.
As an aside, the US certainly doesn’t acknowledge reality during its press conferences. Last Friday, I listened to Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, say things like:
The key here in Cancun—the watchword—is balance, genuine balance….Balance, in my judgment is the key to unlock the door to a strong set of decisions here in Cancun followed by a ramped-up Fast Track [Climate Finance] process in 2011 that will lead to elaboration and a fully operational set of decisions that could be done next year in South Africa….I think we can get there as long as countries do not seek to become stumbling blocks, to slow down progress.
In the final moments of the bus ride—its’ a long one—I brought up my home country’s actions. He nodded. “Yes, yes.” We spoke a bit more about the United States and the excuses we have used to avoid taking action on climate change. One of the things people in other countries keep hearing—and believing—is that US inaction is a matter of politics. Now, it’s true that Republicans by and large are awful on the issue of climate change.
But let’s face it: The Democrats didn’t support climate change legislation either. Not to the extent to make it a reality. And really? Action on something like climate change—when the science is clear, the impacts are likely to be severe and the the actions beneficial also in terms of public health and the environment—shouldn’t have anything at all to do with politics. Am I wrong to think that?
Back home, we argue about politics (Although I won’t argue anymore. Talk to the hand unless you’re talking about campaign finance reform.) Many also think of climate change as an abstraction or something that’s open to debate or worth thinking about perhaps in the future. But for many of the people I’ve met in recent months—from the Solomon Islands, Maldives, Africa, Nepal, and even places such as Columbia and China—climate change is real. It’s happening. And the United States is actively ensuring that nothing happens to confront that reality.
As we were getting off the bus, I wanted to say something to this gentleman.
But quite honestly, I don’t know what I might have said, save for goodbye and good luck.
I have a story in yesterday’s American Independent; it’s sort of a primer on the climate talks:
I’ll be posting more news stories and blog posts, but if you really want to keep up with COP 16, you should visit the Earth Journalism Network website.
There, my fellow fellows will be posting links to their news stories, photographs and radio pieces. (Scroll down to the column on the left, titled “Stories produced by Earth Journalism members.”)
And if you’re a reporter, be sure and check out the tools and resources section of the site.
I spent all day Friday in press conferences; and despite all the grim and frustrating news, was pretty excited to actually make it back to my hotel before dark. I harbored the irrational fantasy that I just might take a short walk on the beach before the sun set.
I exited the shuttle bus from Moon Palace and was rushing through the Cancun Messe to reach the other shuttle bus back to the hotels, when I walked straight into a small demonstration in front of Hall C. (The negotiations and press conferences are being held at the Moon Palace, but everyone has to go through security at the Cancun Messe building, which also hosts side events and exposition booths from various countries, NGOs and companies.)
I stood and listened for just a few minutes until a UN event coordinator stopped the peaceful demonstration, explaining that while he could have helped them find an appropriate venue, the middle of the Cancun Messe was not such a place.
I had just a moment to speak with Justice Dave Vinod Shankar who, along with a caravan of 20 citizens from India, is trying to raise awareness of the effects people still suffer today from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant and exposed hundreds of thousands of people living nearby. Estimates of people killed following the gas leak range from about 2,200 to more than 15,000.
Speaking of Warren Anderson—who was chairman of Union Carbide in Dec. 1984 and has refused to appear for trial in a criminal case filed in an Indian court—Vinod Shankar called for justice:
He has been declared an absconder. Declared an absconder by the courts. As a law abiding citizen he should surrender.
We don’t want him to be convicted without trial. But he must face the trial.
If his name is in the report, and the prosecutor calls him to be prima facie of the case—when eight Indians have been sentenced, and they are rotting in jail—why should he not even face the trial?
For background on the recent conviction of eight Indians, see this BBC report:
The tragedy continues in Bhopal, he noted. The second generation of Indians living near the scene of the accident have been born with deformities. And they deserve justice: “It’s not a question of sympathy or doing mercy on anybody,” he said. “It’s a question of sharing empathy with the person.”
As the crowd dispersed, I had only a moment to speak with a second man in the caravan. Just because the Bhopal leak happened a long time ago doesn’t mean there aren’t still damages, he said. “Justice delayed is also justice denied.”
Yesterday, I traveled with other Earth Journalism Network fellows to Xyatil, an ejido (community farm) about three hours from Cancun. I won’t have time to to add explanations to the pictures for a few days, but some of you have emailed, saying you wanted to see more pictures than the one I posted on Facebook last night.
While covering environmental issues in the American Southwest over the past eight years, I’ve come across the folks at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity more than a few times. So I was particularly interested to check out their side event at COP 16 on Tuesday. The event, which they co-sponsored with 350.org, also featured author and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben.
I’ll admit this: I’m a fan of McKibben’s. I appreciate his writing, but beyond that, I’ve always been struck by the fact that he seems like a good man—one who is generous with his talents and time.
And so it was sobering to listen to him talk tonight, and to see how tired he looks. Who isn’t tired while at the COPs? And of course, he’s been keeping up an intense travel schedule. But his exhaustion seemed deeper than that—and twice I noticed him holding and shaking his head, including once when the CBD’s climate science adviser Shaye Wolf was discussing the impacts of melting sea ice on the Pacific walrus.
McKibben, who turns 50 next week, opened his remarks with an apology for speaking too frankly. He noted that after years of attending these conferences, he’s become more impatient every time—and struck by the “air of unreality” that surrounds the negotiations.
This air of unreality is especially stark in Cancun given how brutal this past summer was for so many people, he said. Not only does Arctic sea ice continue to melt, but Russia experienced a tremendous heat wave—one that prompted the Kremlin to cease grain exports and cause a spike of prices on markets worldwide—and almost a quarter of Pakistan’s lands were submerged beneath flood waters. Those were just the obvious weather events; the dramatic ones that grabbed headlines.
Indeed, climate change is happening. And for some, its impacts are already unbearable.
“We’re already in a world of hurt, and we’re already doing things we can’t sustain or deal with,” he said. “And it shows the institutional—I’m looking for a more polite word— insanity of talking about a two degree rise in temperature on the planet as if it were some kind of goal for which we should strive.”
(For those who might have forgotten, in 2009, some world leaders accepted a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures as a goal.)
“If we’re already melting the Arctic, what should that tell us?” he asked, adding: “We can’t be sitting here having strategies on how to get more carbon in the atmosphere and call it good; we need to be figuring out strategies for figuring out how to get it out of the air.”
Because, let’s face it: The two degree goal is impossible. Countries such as the United States aren’t making any carbon emissions reductions. And worldwide, carbon emissions continue to rise. The planet isn’t stopping at two degrees, thanks to our activities. Just this week, in fact, the Royal Society published a report about what a four degree rise in temperatures will mean.
During their discussion, McKibben and his fellow speakers touched upon the unwillingness of the United States to act on a national or international level to address climate change. But they also talked about some of the ways in which progress can happen. There is movement within the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions. And as the Center for Biological Diversity has proven over the years, the Endangered Species Act is oftentimes an effective way to protect the habitat of imperiled species.
But let’s face it, folks: The United States lacks the political will to do much of anything on climate change. And for the most part, the public is disinterested in pushing politicians to tackle this global emergency.
There are a lot of people working hard to turn both those ships around—to influence political leaders and to educate the public—but for the most part, Americans just don’t seem to care about climate change. After all, its worst impacts so far are affecting people in distant places. Places such as the Seychelles.
During the question-and-answer period following the talk, a gentleman toward the back of the room stood and introduced himself.
“We will continue to be as noisy as we can until the water covers our heads,” said Seychelles Ambassador to the UN, Ronald Jumeau. “And even when the water is over our heads, when the bubbles pop, you will hear us yelling.”
But Jumeau had something else to say: Thank you. He was thanking the Americans in front of him for trying to get the United States to “see sense” on climate change.
Jumeau went on to explain that when countries agreed to two degrees as a target, they wrote off the small island states whose shores are already being inundated with rising waters. “Rather than doing that, we argue, look at what it takes to save the most vulnerable and then work up,” he said. “If you save us, you save everybody—that’s the bottom line.”
This morning, it took a good hour-and-a-half to get to the COP 16 conference venue, thanks to traffic, security checks and a general current of disorganization. (I keep hearing two things about the logistics of last year’s meetings in Copenhagen: They were easier to navigate, but it was cold as hell. So, actually, I’m okay with some disorganization.)
I wasn’t able to get into the opening ceremony; the second badge journalists needed for that event were all “exhausted.” Or at least, that’s what a bunch of us were told by an exasperated gentleman who didn’t seem to understand—or more accurately, care—that we hadn’t come to Cancun to watch the event on a television screen.
So I did end up watching the ceremony on a television screen after all. And I managed to pay pretty close attention despite the fact that about halfway through the speeches, I noticed the ocean view outside the window. I’m pretty sure I lived an entire lifetime while spacing out for those few minutes and watching the undulating shades of deep blue and turquoise.
At any rate, there were two speeches in particular that struck me. (Well, really, three did. But I’m “saving” that third one for a news story I’ll be writing later this week.) The first was by the chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri.
But first, let’s remember what the IPCC really is. The UN General Assembly created it in 1988 so scientists could objectively assess the state of knowledge about climate change. It’s not a prescriptive agency. Rather it draws conclusions from the data. The IPCC’s purpose is to help policymakers assess the state of the science of climate change. So far, the IPCC has produced four assessment reports—in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007.
All right. Are we all clear on what the IPCC is? Great.
So, back to Pachauri.
He explained that the fourth assessment report involved the work of 3,750 experts—all of whom, he said, volunteered their time without compensation from IPCC. (How many climate deniers volunteer their time? I hate to veer off-topic here, but it’s worth pointing out that there are more than a few differences between scientists and industry flaks.) They evaluated 18,000 documents as well as 19,000 comments that came in during various stages of drafting. And they made a very important finding: “The warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” It has been observed in the average air and water temperatures, and the melting snow and ice which is causing rising sea levels.
Pachauri also pointed out that up to 30 percent of the plant and animal species assessed so far are at the risk of extinction if the planet exceeds the 1.5 to 2.5 degree Celsius rise in temperatures. The “failed” Copenhagen Accord, let’s remember, called for trying to achieve carbon emission reductions that might cap temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius.
He added that global carbon emissions should peak no later than 2015 and decline thereafter. Such action must occur if we want to have a chance at avoiding abrupt and irreversible climate change.
But even if we could limit global temperature increases to 2 or 2.5 degrees—which, let’s face it, is unlikely given that carbon emissions continue to rise—some impacts would be inevitable, such as sea level rises resulting from the melting of sea ice.
Pachauri went on to talk about adaptation and mitigation, pointing out that the response to climate change involves an integrated risk management process—and that changes of lifestyle and patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation.
Right now, the IPCC is working on its fifth assessment, which it will release in November, 2014. The panel is also working on two special reports, one on renewable energy and mitigation, and a second about extreme weather events. (For more information on the IPCC’s activities, visit http://www.ipcc.ch/activities/activities.htm)
Pachauri ended his talk saying that he hoped significant action would come out of Cancun: “The available scientific knowledge justifies it,” he said, “and the global community rightly expects it.”
The final talk of the plenary was from Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. And I have to be honest: I found it inspiring. (Of course, as an American, I’m also suspicious of inspirational speeches from an elected official.)
Calderón repeatedly spoke of economics, pointing out that it is “less expensive to respond to climate change now than to respond to the consequences of not putting a stop to it in time.” He also talked about the “false dilemma” of the environment versus the economy—and added poverty to that equation.
“It is perfectly possible to sustain economic growth and fight poverty,” he said. “It is perfectly possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and not only sustain economic growth, but even find new ways of generating productivity and jobs in green development, green growth and sustainable development.”
He continued: “The key, then, my friends is to close both gaps at the same time, the gap between man and nature, and the gap between rich and poor.” That route exists, he said, and we should explore it together.
Communicating the implications of climate change is necessary, he said—necessary to the call to action. “Putting a stop to climate change is a true challenge, and there is only one power to rise to this challenge: the power of humanity itself.”
Scientists and policymakers can do much of the work, he said, but only the seven billion human beings on the face of the earth have the force to actually make that change.
The world expects a responsible answer from leaders at Cancun, he said: “We must work with our hearts so that our grandchildren someday will remember us for what we achieved here in Cancun.”
And leaders at Cancun must find a “shared vision of the future,” he said, “so that the generosity of our spirit is not overcome by selfishness.” Not only that, but leaders cannot put “partial interests ahead of the needs of our planet and future generations.”
As a mother, I’m always thinking about how my daughter will look back upon these times. Will she wonder why we did nothing when we were faced with such overwhelming evidence that action was necessary? Parents are accountable to our children in our daily lives, so why can’t we think more clearly about the emergencies they will face in the near and long-term future? That fact of humanity just baffles me.
Since this piece is already way too long for a blog post, I might as well note a few more things:
By this point, any readers who have happened upon this blog should already have realized I’m not reporting the hard news here. I’ll be reporting and blogging for a number of media outlets while I’m in Cancun—and I’ll post links to those pieces—but this spot here is something else entirely. This is something of a running commentary to friends and readers, mostly in New Mexico, who have expressed interest in learning about what’s happening at COP.
Readers should also know that the quotes from the opening session are those I transcribed while listening to an English translation on a headset (and while shooting pissy looks at the journalists around me who were talking on their cell phones or chatting while I was trying to listen. There is a very good reason I am a freelance journalist: The sound of a newsroom—the chatting and the typing and all those chair-squeaking, pencil tapping, leg bouncing noises—drives me quite mad.)
And lastly, I’m unbelievably grateful to the people responsible for my being here at COP 16. That gratitude extends to the folks at Earth Journalism Network, Internews and the Climate Change Media Partnership, but also to all the family members, friends and loved ones who are picking up my real life slack—and most of all to a certain little kid who periodically gets really sad because her mom’s far away for a pretty long stretch of time.