Showing posts with label México. Show all posts
Showing posts with label México. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

"As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. "

The fisherman throwing his discards to the gulls under a red orange sky at sunset with flamingoes still wading just off shore in brilliant turquoise waters in the background makes this place seem like a Jimmy Buffet license plate.

We are back in Mexico, revisiting old haunts. A few years ago we asked Richard Heinberg what he thought about jetting around the world to speak at various events, and he said he thought now was a good time to be doing that; as world explorers and messengers we should travel as much as we could; the day will soon enough come when air travel will be too expensive or even unavailable at any price.

In solemn atonements (our planting ceremony runs something like, “Grow, ya bugger!”) we plant trees  and bamboo groves for our travel indulgences, and make biochar from the coppicings. Last year we were in eight countries; next year we already have speaking engagements in ten. We might have taken the advice a bit too seriously.

In the fall of 2005, we were at this same location in Southern Mexico, clutching the book contract to write The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook for New Society Publishers, its ink still wet. After searching about, we spent part of our advance to take lodgings in a sweet little grass shack on a beach off the Straits of Cuba. Our perfect book-writing retreat was in a rustic, dirt-road town with one internet café and almost no-one who spoke English.

That October we had gone back to Tennessee to tie up some business before hunkering down in Mexico for the winter, sheaves of research in hand. Then the unexpected.

On October 19, Caribbean breezes kicked up to Tropical Storm strength along the Southern coast of Mexico. Tropical Depression number 24 had formed four days before, 85 miles SW of Jamaica, and had organized with unprecedented speed. On Monday it tied a record of 1933 by becoming the 21st named storm of the Atlantic season. The name it was given was “Wilma.” By Wednesday it had become the 12th hurricane of the year and had set another record: at 5 pm that day its pressure was recorded at 892 millibars. It had become the strongest hurricane in history. If there were Category 5 hurricanes, Wilma might have been a Cat 5.

The flight back to Mexico had been cancelled. The airlines were sending their aircraft only one way – outbound, jam-packed with evacuating tourists. Wilma made landfall at noon on Friday, crossing Cozumel and moving into the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact weakened it to a Category 3, but it also stalled its forward motion, so the giant storm just lingered, pounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya through Saturday. The National Hurricane Center said it was “meandering,” then “drifting northward,” then “erratically drifting.” Hurricane force winds persisted over land for 24 hours, then 48. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilma drifted Northeastward into the Gulf of Mexico, passing directly over my palm-leaf shack, with sustained winds of 115 mph.

On Monday Wilma slammed Palm Beach, Florida as a Cat 3 storm with winds at 125 mph, but it was moving so fast – 50 mph – that it crossed Florida in just 2 hours and headed North into the Atlantic. On Tuesday it dissipated, 200 miles Southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mexico is extraordinary when it comes to disaster preparedness, but Wilma left six dead — one of them a body washed ashore from Cuba — and devastation in our small town was total. The entire village went under 3 feet of churning water for a day or more. Eighteen-foot breakers had pounded shore-front properties to rubble. But, thanks to military-enforced evacuation of the entire coast, people were mostly unharmed and were soon able to return.

As soon as the airport reopened, we flew down to see what had become of our advance book royalty. It was not a pretty sight.

What was pretty, though, were the ways that people came together to assist one another in the clean-up and rebuilding. It would be another month or more before power and water would return, and the internet café was now a sandy pile of soggy CPUs and broken plastic terminals, but with a deadline to meet, we began writing our Survival Guide with a folding solar array, a motorcycle battery, and a set of cables that could charge the iBook during the day. We got hot water from a solar shower bag and baked some quesadillas with a solar oven.

Our roof, surprisingly enough, was entirely intact, its palm thatch rising and falling in respiration with its tormenter. It is still in fine shape now, 7 years later. Where the rushing seas, in their retreat to the Caribbean, undercut our little home’s foundations and caused the walls to crack and collapse, we excavated down and poured fresh cement. The government came with trucks and gave away free construction materials. All over the Yucatan there were piles of sand, bags of cement, steel rod, and concrete block piled neatly in front of every damaged home. 

At night, with no power for televisions or computers, the village would assemble in the central plaza with guitars, fiddles, and flutes. A generator would light the park. We would dance and sing and laugh and tell jokes.

Within a year, we could hardly tell that any storm had come through, so complete were the repairs.

We wrote this chapter in our book in those months:

“Preparing for peak oil can be relatively easy, since the preparation is 75 percent mental, 15 percent physical, and 10 percent fiscal. Don’t be flabbergasted at what to do. Quit asking should I buy solar? Should I buy an axe? Should I buy a gun? The answers are no, no, and no …. This feeling of a need to buy stuff is in fact the very reason why we have this predicament. We over-consume. The preparation problem is not addressed by buying more stuff; it’s addressed by mentally and physically getting used to the idea of getting by on less stuff.” — Chris Lisle

Sometimes it is comforting to recall that life before Colonel Drake discovered that well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, was not without creature comforts. Blacksmiths under spreading chestnut trees worked on steam-electric “horseless carriages.” Trains and horse-drawn wagons brought fresh food from distant farms. The most daring folks even tottered around on the penny-farthing bicycle. Many of the jobs people had then were not so different from jobs today. Some would be greatly enhanced by the tools we have developed in the past century.

In many other ways, the world is a very different place. The first big change is global warming. Our burgeoning population has added significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the air, and we know from the fossil record that every time atmospheric carbon has risen, so have global temperatures. We have now nearly doubled CO2 concentrations that existed at the start of the industrial era, and reliable science suggests it will take thousands, possibly millions, of years for natural processes to bring us back to pre-industrial equilibrium. In the near term — the next century or two — the world is going to get warmer. Much warmer.

The areas first noticeably affected by this warming will likely be in the mid-continental regions, where drier soil conditions will prevail, droughts will occur more frequently, and desertification will be a serious threat. Next will be coastal areas, where sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and storm activity will submerge entire islands and permanently alter the shape of continents. These changes will be most profound at the higher latitudes, but no part of the Earth will be spared completely.


Global warming is not the only ticking time bomb. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has routinely been receiving permits to dump radioactive wastes into the air and water even though British, French, Dutch, Russian, and other governments are well aware of the lethal consequences to future generations. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects 1.7 million cancer and genetic deaths in the world population from current US-based plants alone.

At least the nuclear industry has watchdog agencies, even if their historic role has been more like that of lapdogs. The level of regulation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is far more lackadaisical. Thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical dumpsites are leaching toxic compounds into the environment without anyone seeming to notice. Rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have been treated as a vast open sewer, and the damage to human and ecosystem health is only beginning.


So this is where we find ourselves. We have spent the past hundred or so years at a huge party thrown by petroleum. Our host has spared no expense and has lavished wonderful gifts upon us, and we are surely grateful. Some of the gifts we have used wisely and some we have wasted. The party has been going on for so long that most people, although tired, have the sense that it’s a permanent thing — that we can go home and go to bed and come back again tomorrow and it will still be here.


It’s nearly over now. The band is packing up. Tomorrow we have the big cleanup.

As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. Only time will tell. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cancunhagen 3.0: The Green Climate Fund

"It was exhilarating. Intoxicating. Transcendant. Naked apes as a species had stared into the abyss and said, as newly sentient beings, with global awareness, “Whoa, dude, don’t want to go there!” or vocal-chord-vibrating grunts to that effect."

Lord Nicolas Stern
At the UN Climate Summit in Cancún, a “Green Climate Fund” was given over to the World Bank as initial trustee (to Bolivia’s horror and the United States’ relief), but that trusteeship was placed under a 3-year sunset clause. Equally horrifying to international carbon speculators was the way the UN put the trustee on a choke chain, making GCF an “operating entity” of the UNFCCC.  The document says, “The trustee shall administer the assets of the Green Climate Fund only for the purpose of, and in accordance with, the relevant decisions of the Green Climate Fund Board.” The board of directors of the fund is skewed towards those most vulnerable to climate change — those whose sense of urgency is most deeply felt. Of the 40 members of the board, 15 members represent developed countries and 25 members developing countries, with:
  • Seven members from Africa;
  • Seven members from Asia;
  • Seven members from Group of Latin American and Caribbean States;
  • Two members from small island developing States; and
  • Two members from least developed countries.
Dan Kammen
This board is empowered to replace the World Bank with a trustee of its own choosing after 2013. It is useful to remember that the World Bank itself has been evolving. Lord Nicholas Stern, the author of the UK study on the economic impacts of climate change, is now its chief economist. Former IPCC team leader and director of the UC Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory Dan Kammen is its energy director.

The fund is not restricted to national tax revenues or UN dues but can employ a variety of revenue streams, with targets based on the Copenhagen Accord: $30 billion fast start to 2015, and $100 billion annually by 2020. Daniel Caperton at the Center for American Progress notes:
Formal discussions on this topic started in Cancun, where a proposal to put a price on the carbon emissions from international transport and shipping was included in early drafts. Some developed countries, including the United States, opposed this idea because of legal concerns, but it should be back on the table in South Africa.
An African delegate checks
 his Blackberry

Indeed, every single source of finance that the U.N. High Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing identified in their final report should be part of the negotiation in South Africa, including a financial transactions tax and revenue generated by a putting a price on carbon. Now that the Green Climate Fund has been built, it’s time to think about how to put money into it.
One of the early recipients of fund largesse will be the Climate Technology Center and Network, whose goal will be to construct a global network to match technology suppliers with technology needs. Presidente Calderon pledged that México would build one of the first nodes in this network, a Caribbean Climate and Renewable Technology Center, to rigorously test and modify the latest breakthroughs and deploy them quickly throughout Latin America.

Some of the breakthrough technologies on display in Cancún worth a trip to Wikipedia include: Barefoot College; Energia Geo Rotational; EcoTotality; Ecovative; WorldStove; Freeplay Energy; Morphosis; Solar Electric Light Fund; and some nifty oil paintings hung in on a windy balcony, rattling gently against the wall behind them, making electricity by piezoelectric current.

Another potential revenue stream are “market-based mechanisms” such as carbon capture and storage and aforestation projects using carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In this context, there is a small attempt to address the “hot air” issues of Kyoto by offering some special recognition of Central and Eastern European countries and by conceding there are countries at the edge between developed and developing, such as Turkey and Egypt. This also opens the door for expansion of carbon trading regimes and exchanges, and the setting of a price on carbon, often seen as the only way to avoid Jevons’ Paradox when greening energy  or other parts of the economy. There is much devil in future details to be worked out.

So, for instance, Bellona Foundation projected in 2009 that setting a price on carbon would create many wedges that would begin to drop atmospheric concentrations. Here is Bellona’s chart, on display last year in Copenhagen:

Sadly, like the IPCC’s 2007 Assessment, the Bellona Forecast failed to take account for Peak Oil. While crude oil peaked globally in 2006, substitute liquids from deep sea gas, fracking shale gas and tar sands have allowed addicts to keep getting higher, bordering on overdose, but real world EROI is about to alter that chemistry and beginning about 2011 the withdrawal tremens won’t be pretty. Here is the Bellona chart superimposed on the decline slope predicted from the most current International Energy Agency reports, with CCS (a “clean-coal” oxymoron) replaced by a best practice carbon capture (carbon farming, agroforestry, CHP-biochar, etc.), the black wedge:

From this chart it is easy to see how a less-petroleum-dominated future could also be a low-carbon and even carbon-minus future. All of those colored wedges represent economic stimuli — all have vast profit potentials.

Another good example put forward through side events was that of Germany’s climate and energy policy framework consisting of eco-taxes, feed-in tariffs, an emissions trading scheme (ETS), and other measures to drive production of renewables and increase efficiency. Germany’s ETS funds both domestic renewables projects and aid projects through its International Climate Initiative. Countries with progressive vision are starting to see a first-mover advantage in low-carbon technology regardless of climate negotiations or international carbon trading schemes.

Ultimately, the Cancún Agreements embraced the notion — from South Korea, Germany and other self-starters — that there is a solution to the climate problem that involves economic hope and opportunity. The Agreements set aside, for now, the gloomy vista painted by India, The South Center and ALBA — of deprivations, imposed sacrifice, and penalties for historic wrongs.

By 3 AM on Saturday, when the final Agreements came up for a plenary vote, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and most of ALBA’s opposition evaporated (the result of Calderon’s skills as a diplomat) and Bolivia was left standing on “procedural irregularities” in a final attempt to derail consensus. “Consensus does not mean giving the right of veto to one country,” said the delegate from Colombia.

“Consensus does not mean unanimity,” echoed COP President Patricia Espinoza. “We regret that Bolivia chose not to participate in the drafting of the document, but they cannot be permitted to block the will of all the other parties now… Of course I do note your opinion and I will be more than happy to make sure it is reflected in the records of the conference. And if there is no other opinion, this text is approved.” The gavel fell. The cheers erupted. Cancún was a done deal.

Humans as a species may be slow to change, and much of our genetic heritage works to slow our recognition of intangible threats, but in Cancún a big shift in our awareness could be felt. Governments that had hemmed and hawed, thrown up obstructions and excuses, and denied that any alternative to business as usual was even possible, were seen coming to grips with the existential issues of the day. Whether shocked by cascading weather events, embarassed by the Copenhagen debacle or enticed by the green economy, they stood together at the final dawn and applauded a change in direction.

It was exhilarating. Intoxicating. Transcendant. Naked apes as a species had stared into the abyss and said, as newly sentient beings, with global awareness, “Whoa, dude, don’t want to go there!” or vocal-chord-vibrating grunts to that effect, and had decided to actually do something different. Something radically different. Already science had come together with something exponentially more difficult than the moon shot and had found consensus. Now world diplomats, finally, did the same.

While a legal treaty might have been better, it more likely would have been worse. Politicians are neither scientists nor diplomats. In many ways they are an order lower on the evolutionary chain from members of the general public, who seem to be better read. No binding climate treaty is likely to pass the US Senate, which, when fully in the hands of the Democratic Party was unable to pass a weak, watered-down carbon credits bill. Even if it were ratified by enough countries to go into effect, the result could well be like Kyoto — failed efforts to meet pledges by most, and economic penalties accruing to those who performed with honor.

PHOTO by Willy Sousa, Mexico en tus Sentidos
Without the legal form now, the route to emissions reductions becomes a private competition. Those who develop and deploy the technology first (and can stay ahead of the crashing fireball and toxic dust cloud of the American Industrial Empire) will be the big winners. Greening your economy means staying in the game. Brown loses and is ejected. This is not a bad outcome.
What the Cancún Agreements did was set up and fund the arena, hand out uniforms, and lay down some beginning rules for fair play. Durban, Seoul and later contests on the UNFCCC circuit will refine those rules after seeing them in practice. It is clear that some of the players don’t yet get this, and are still stuck in older dialectics. Too bad for them. They will be slow off the bench and will probably eat a lot of dust before they find themselves playing catch up.

Next: Cancún and Four Degrees


Friday, December 31, 2010

Cancunhagen 1.0: Revenge on the Danes

"If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table." — John Michael Greer

So, in our last post we gave the starting point of the negotiations. It would take some masterful negotiator, a combination of Mohandas Gandhi and KKR’s Henry Kravis, to reach any meaningful denouement. Such a master appeared in the unlikely guise of the President of the host country.

We have never been especially fond of Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa, its true. In the course of the first two weeks of December, however, our opinion reversed. Before the Cancún Summit we saw him as a Bush toadie who ascended to power over the populist candidate and rightful president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador through a Diebold-rigged election.

But, during the Summit, we watched slack-jawed as he opened the doors to civil society and welcomed all to attend the discussions. He held stakeholder sessions to listen to the views of science, development organizations working in the field, the media, indigenous rights groups, religious groups, and sub-governmental agencies. Everyone had access. Guayaberas replaced suits; “tú” replaced “usted” or “Excellency;” his casa was our casa.

In Copenhagen we had been forced to stand in blowing snow for hours to get daily passes only to find the doors to meeting rooms blocked by plainclothes security with earbuds and bulging armpits. In Cancún, if you jumped through a few months of hoops to get credentialed, you could observe almost any meeting, and in many of them you were offered the microphone and translator services, if you needed to speak. Contrary to the chants of the protestors, the UN did not silence civil society.

The effect this had was to bring in out-of-the-box thinking that was the only possible way to break through the numerous loggerheads.

Peter Wood of Australian National University told delegates in one meeting that the impasse boiled down to how nations deal with the free rider incentive. No-one wants to jeopardize their economy by being the first to act, or by acting alone. But, Wood said, “Some game theory mechanisms based on countries either matching each others’ commitments or subsidizing each others’ reductions have game theory solutions: fully cooperative outcomes.”

John Michael Greer has said, “If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table.”

In a recent analysis published in Foreign Affairs and reviewed in Scientific American on-line, Prof. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU argues that political leaders will, by and large, act on what keeps them in power or helps them to get re-elected, not that which protects the planet. Even promising their constituents light economic pain now for understood benefits years into the future isn’t a winning formula.

“One way that it could work is to link cooperation on climate change with cooperation on other issues, such as trade,” argued Wood. “If a country introduces a carbon price, it may also want to introduce a ‘border tax adjustment’ that levies a carbon price on emissions-intensive imported goods.” That is also a strategy championed by James Hansen following a recent trip to China. According to Hansen, China may find economic advantage in going carbon-negative and could, under the rules of the WTO, impose import tariffs on countries like Australia, the US and Canada that were less environmentally responsible.

However, what game theorists failed to take into account was the latest findings in cognitive neuroscience. Not coincidentally, that is precisely the kind of knowledge that permaculturists, transition towns affiliates and the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) brought to the discussion.

Research by behavioralists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello indicates that toddlers as young as 18 months instinctively behave altruistically. When we contemplate violence done to others we activate the same regions in our brains that fire up when mothers gaze at their children. Caring for strangers is in-bred. When we help others, pleasure centers in our brains light up like Christmas trees. There is no self-other. We are our brothers’ keepers.

Most game theorists begin with the assumption that humans are hardwired to be aggressive and selfish, and politicians seek only self-interest. Ecovillagers and Transition Towners know from actual experience that people not only can behave well and nobly, but can take deep pleasure in doing so, a pleasure so intense it suggests that an unspoken, unmet appetite for fulfilling work and sharing community lies just below the surface of our collective angst.

Some of us even yearn for quick collapse, to get past the inevitable and back to a recognition of communitas. Civilizational collapse is not always as bad as it is made out to be. Ask the Maya.

At the Communications Forum we learned that 64% of the delegates believed the unwillingness to risk economic or political damage at home was the greatest barrier to reaching agreement. Only 20% think it is due to skepticism of the science. Of those representing industrial countries, 69% were unwilling to jeopardize continued economic growth; 59% in developing countries.

As many of the submissions from civil society made clear, however, excellent studies in various countries and regions already show profitable means to achieve 40% aggregate reductions from 1990 levels for 2020. Some groups, like Climate Action Network, Centre for Alternative Technology and European Climate Foundation, have shown how we can transition to a zero carbon economy for developed countries by 2050 or even 2030. Dubious technologies like clean coal and nuclear can be pursued by countries inviting their own financial ruin, but most will likely choose to adopt renewables targets like China’s. China’s carbon goal, without precondition of treaty or reciprocity by others, is 15% primary energy from solar/renewables by 2020 and an increase in forest cover by 150,000 square miles.

A declaration signed by 150,000 Chinese “members of the public” endorsed that national commitment, even though it recognized that cutting GHG by 40-45% of 2005 levels by 2020 would entail real changes in lifestyle options. Note however that China’s pledge is -40-45% per unit of GDP. That “per unit of GDP” rider is a significant qualifier since China’s GDP grows 8-10% annually. If the math seems a bit opaque, that is no accident.

South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative is groundbreaking in several ways: it has broad bipartisan and public support, it is being implemented with detailed and forceful legislation; and despite early opposition from energy-intensive sectors such as steel and cement, it has been embraced by mainstream industry. Firms like Hyundai and Samsung have implemented their own “green growth” strategies, including entering into new business areas such as solar energy, wind power, electric vehicles, and zero-emission factories.

Most impressive about South Korea’s initiative is the “just-do-it” philosophy that drives it. The country’s leaders are frustrated by the maddeningly slow and ideological character of the climate negotiations. They are firmly — and accurately — convinced that the global economy is no longer sustainable on its current track, and that those who choose to seize the “early mover” advantage and pioneer low-carbon, green industries will strengthen their economies and create millions of jobs. This was a repeating theme hammered in events featuring “Green Tech” displays, the CEO of WalMart and L. Hunter Lovins. We attended a Worldwatch sponsored event titled “Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps: Insights from Those Who Are Leading the Way,” which, while pretty lame in its ambitions and case studies, showed how being green is, as a practical matter, the only financially sound option for the degrowth economic milieu.

Other good ideas, like Ross Jackson’s idea for an international carbon board or the carbon maintenance fee concept developed by Richard Douthwaite at FEASTA were also prominently mentioned at the unveiling of a cross-cutting study being tasked to the World Resources Institute by UNEP. These outside works, involving financial reforms, fee-bates, incentives and tariffs, and many other ideas, will now come into greater discussion in future COPs, as they are laid side-by-side and looked at in scientific, political and economic contexts.

That is all thanks to the open and transparent negotiations process created and stewarded by President Calderon. Danish President Rassmussen, eat your heart out.

Tomorrow: Cancunhagen 2.0: Reality Strikes Back




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