Friday, December 10, 2010


Rant-warning. I’m going to step out of our long-standing practice of speaking less passionately in first-person plural and do some personal, singular venting here.

Here in Cancún at the Climate Summit I am a little sleep-deprived and perhaps that makes me more emotional, but last night I was not merely shocked, but aghast at the positions being advanced on behalf of myself, as an American citizen, by my government.

A few more caviats may be in order, because although I travel on a US passport, I was born on a Pacific territorial possession whose Queen was deposed by a coup led by Dole Corporation mercenaries backed by the US Marine Corps. At that time, 1893, the Hawaiian Army was more than capable of engaging and repelling the puny attack, but Queen Liliʻuokalani ordered her palace guards to stand down in the spirit of Aloha — non-violence, and allow her to win over the aggressors by returning kindness, in the tradition of her culture. Instead, her island territory was annexed by the United States for a naval base and she was placed under permanent house arrest.

For the past 20 years I have spent a lot of time away from the US, teaching and organizing, and so I consider myself more of a world citizen. As readers of this blog know, I criticize and entreat my government when I think it is wrong, but still, as a taxpayer and registered voter, I take a degree of ownership in the things that the United States does in my name. That is why I am so ashamed today.

Another piece of background is in order here. In 1980, as a young environmental attorney, I was engaged in litigation against an agricultural chemical company that was despoiling a freshwater aquifer with the byproducts of the manufacture of herbicides and pesticides. Millions of gallons of toxic fluids were being pumped a mile down, “fracking” the rock and contaminating an enormous drinking water source that stretches from the Appalachian mountains to the Texas gulf coast. Epidemiological “hot spots” of central nervous system damage like Reye's syndrome and brain tumors were already appearing near the injection zone. The argument being made by the company was that surface waters in the local area are so abundant there is no need to protect the deeper source. My countering argument was that two factors would converge to change that, long before the poison had lost its deadliness.

Those two changes were population and climate.

And so, I found myself, in 1980, having to argue climate change in court. At that time global warming was thought to be progressing at about 1 degree per century. By the time I compiled my research into a book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do (foreword by Al Gore) in 1990, much more was known. Since then I have read most English language books published in the field and many of the source studies. One can say I am obsessed with the subject, but I would say only that I am concerned less for my country than for my species, and want to do all I can to insure our survival.

This concern led me to found the Ecovillage Network of the Americas, demonstrating low-carbon built environments across all cultures; to be on the board of the US Biochar Initiative, providing policy guidance in the ethical application of carbon-minus agriculture; and to offset my own travel and lifestyle emissions by tree planting since 1985. It is also what brought me to each of the United Nations climate summits as an NGO delegate with consultative status.

So when I listened yesterday to a briefing on the current US position in these talks, it was with a history of already having heard it all and not having very high expectations of my government. But even I was shocked.

President Obama, as he did in Copenhagen, is again undermining the Kyoto Protocol, which Al Gore negotiated but the Senate never ratified (President Clinton never sent it up to the Hill, nor has any president since). Obama’s Copenhagen Accord, a backroom deal with emergent powers India, China, South Africa and Brazil that substitutes voluntary pledges for the “commitments” agreed in Kyoto, leaves a “gigaton gap” of accumulating carbon in the atmosphere. Wikileaks’ State Dept. cables have revealed that since Copenhagen Hillary Clinton has turned US diplomats into spies, gathering dirt on various reluctant participants in the Obama Accord, and either blackmailing them or offering bribes. Hillary Clinton is persona non grata at the UN now, having breached its charter, so an appearance by the President of the United States is unthinkable.

Wednesday President Correa of Ecuador was asked by Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow!  if he could confirm the $2.5 million bribe Ecuador was offered and whether he thought his refusal to take it was a cause of the failed coup attempt on his government earlier this year. President Correa said that indeed they had refused the $2.5 million, but that Ecuador would offer the US $5 million if it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He is still waiting for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to get back to him on that. Personally I think $5 million is chump change to most Republicans and $5 billion or $5 trillion might be a more successful bribe. There are 190 nations here in Cancún today. As Richard Nixon famously said to John Dean, “We can get that.”

Which brings me back to yesterday’s briefing. The US is sticking with voluntary pledges and claiming that the barrier to a climate treaty is lack of transparency by China and the less-industrial countries. Studies released here this week have confirmed that this is a false claim. China and others are very transparent and the commitments they have made in the past have uniformly been met. China has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% to 45% from 1990 by 2020 and in the first quarter of this year it built more renewable energy infrastructure than the rest of the world combined. In contrast, the lack of transparency is coming entirely from the United States, which has not even met the weak commitments it made in Copenhagen last December. So, for instance, transparency requires a standard reference term by which all parties measure progress.

When the Obama delegation arrived in Copenhagen, they were speaking such a strange language that UN interpreters, who are the best in their profession, were left staring at each other blankly. The common reference term under the Kyoto Protocol is 1990. So, for instance, in 1997 the US committed in Kyoto to reduce its emissions of CO2 equivalents (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, and two groups of ozone hole gases, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons) by 2012 by 5.6% from 1990 levels. The European Union and Australia committed to 8% and others, such as Iceland, Norway and Denmark, to higher numbers. National emission targets exclude international aviation and shipping. Kyoto Parties can use "sink" activities — land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) — in meeting their targets, or can pay surrogates to do this for them, which is the basis for the current carbon markets.

The US fell woefully short of its Kyoto obligation. While US carbon emissions since 1900 already occupy a third of the available atmosphere (below concentrations that would cause warming), by 2012, US emissions are projected to increase to more than 7,709 teragrams (7.7 GtC), which will be 26 percent above 1990 levels. So President Obama merely changed the reference terms. US proposals are now couched in non-transparent terms like “since 2005” instead of 1990. Instead of speaking of a 2-degree or 1.5 degree warming target (we are now at 0.8 degrees and rising), Secretary Clinton speaks of “450 ppm,” which is an outdated reference from 13 years ago. By using 2005, Clinton can propose a “17%” reduction when actually it is more like 4%. By using 450 instead of 350, Clinton assures that catastrophic warming of 4 degrees and higher by mid-century will sink many Island nations, dissolve coral reefs and extinguish countless species, perhaps even our own.

To provide some context, World Resources Institute looked at the Obama pledge in Copenhagen and considered what kinds of sacrifices USAnians would be forced to make to meet it. One of the charts was particularly poignant. Transportation fuel milage standards would need to rise to 50 mpg by 2030. I drive a biodiesel VW Jetta that still gets 50 mpg even though it was built in 2003. Some sacrifice!

A US government spokesperson proudly said that they project that oil consumption would be flat by 2020, and that “by 2020 America will use less oil than in 2007 because of tailpipe standards.” Certainly by 2020 we all will be using less oil, but believe me (or the International Energy Agency), it ain’t the tailpipe. She went onto say that more than 200,000 US homes have been weatherized at an average annual savings of $500 and that Energy Star appliances have never been selling better. To me it sounded like whistling past the greenhouse.

In a listening session convened by the President of Mexico, Anote Tong,  President of Kiribati, the smallest island nation in the world, said “We are beginning to wonder if we will survive the negotiations themselves. We must keep the process afloat.”

“Whoever thinks they are more vulnerable than we are, we can swap countries, with pleasure,” he said. He recalled that the night before México had hosted a photo exhibit and gala concert of the national orchestra and displayed the tremendous breadth of the Mexican culture. “Mr. President,” he said to Felipe Calderone, “my country has a long and beautiful culture also, but that may soon be completely extinguished. The UNFCCC is becoming meaningless for us. We may not be here in future meetings. We will be gone.”

So far, however, no country has agreed to relocate substantial numbers of Kiribati. Tong’s government signed onto New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme and Australia’s Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme, which provide seasonal employment opportunities in fruit-picking and horticulture industries. President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia did tell President Tong that there was "plenty of room" in his country for Kiribati migrants, but he died suddenly in office in August 2008 and the offer as not renewed by his successor. 

Tong said we should not be speaking as nations, with mandates sent from our capitals. We should be talking amongst ourselves. We should remember we are human. And what we are talking about here are human lives.

Every shovel of coal mined and burned, every overweight car and inefficient light bulb, every useless piece of plastic in our lives — they all light a bonfire of the human culture, they destroy the legacy of forest, lake and ocean biodioversity, and they dash the hopes and dreams of our children. I weep for my country, my planet, my grandchildren.

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