Saturday, January 23, 2010

For whom were you weeping?

For the past nine days as people were pulled alive or dead from the rubble following the devastating earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath, we have been unwilling to speak. It seemed the most respectful thing to do was to abandon the usual themes of this journal and simply be silent. 

We have ridden a roller coaster of emotions. We cried when watching the interview with the young nursing student who had to drink the blood of those who were dying nearby under rubble so she could stay alive despite her crushed skull. We were angry when we saw our government, in whom we had invested such hope only one year ago, repeat the same scenes we had witnessed in New Orleans, landing combat troops in the place of doctors, in fact, keeping planes with doctors and nurses circling over the airport, or diverted to the Dominican Republic 3 days distant by land, so that the United States could land 2000 troops to point their guns at poor black people who only want water.

“We have had five patients in Martissant health center die for lack of the medical supplies that this plane was carrying,” said Loris de Filippi, emergency coordinator for the MSF’s Choscal Hospital in Cite Soleil. “I have never seen anything like this.”

We had. It was a Superdome deja vú moment.

We were disgusted when we saw the stupid comments of newsers, pundits and bloggers that the real danger was rioting, the Devil, or convicts loose in the street, even though 80 percent of those imprisoned by the puppet government were never charged of a crime, many having been champions of democracy sent to rot in indefinite detention after the most-recent US organized coup d’etat in 2004. Why has Haiti rioted in the past? That’s why. This is a proud country, one in which survivors who are extracted from the rubble after a week with broken bones poking through their skin, or crushed skulls, sing joyfully as their stretchers are carried away.

Positive action is the best therapy for our emotions, much better than casting blame, and we have been supporting Jan Lundberg’s call to fast and donate the money saved from buying food, the music benefit being put on by The Farm and others for organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and the efforts of small and nimble aid groups like Plenty to slide through bottlenecks and get the aid where it is most needed.

In our silence, meditating on the depths of horror, and what it may foretell of the kind of a world we are leaving to our grandchildren, we were taken back to a Joseph-Campbell-like lecture by Alan Watts on the mythology of Hinduism that we first heard in 1966 (now released on CD and podcast). Alan Watts:

When Narada came to Vishnu and said, “What is the secret of your Maya (illusion of separateness)?” Vishnu took him and threw him into a pool. And the moment he fell under the pool he was born as a princess in a very great family, and went through all the experiences of childhood and being a little girl, finally married to a prince from another kingdom and she went to live with him in his kingdom.

And they were in tremendous prosperity, and palaces and peacocks and all that sort of thing, then suddenly there was a war, and their kingdom was attacked and utterly destroyed, and the prince himself was killed in battle. And so he was cremated, and she, as a dutiful wife, was about to throw herself, weeping, on the funeral pyre and burn herself, an act of sadhi or self-sacrifice, when suddenly, Narada woke to find himself being pulled out of the pool by his hair.

And Vishnu said, “For whom were you weeping?”

Put slightly differently, by that ol’ Hindu scholar Garth Brooks,

“Yes my life is better left to chance;
I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance”

This does not mean that we should ignore suffering, or cease in our efforts to alleviate it, only that we should recognize that suffering exists, is unavoidable, and this, too, will pass. How we behave, in this knowledge, matters. That is a lesson we all can learn from those victims, pulled from the rubble, singing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Collapsing Consensus

"Responsible officials can discuss none of this in public lest investors lose their nerve and head for the exits. But a conversation that excludes such essential realities is delusional."
— Richard Heinberg, MuseLetter

Mark Twain famously wrote that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." We started out our talk at the Church of Scientology in Nashville Tuesday night by noting that it was more difficult to talk about climate issues in the United States because the matrix was so thick here. That was also the point our first questioner returned to, so we knew we had struck a nerve.

Trying to describe what information flow is like outside the full-surround sound of American media (and here we include our Latin half, because, apart from some islands of free speech, it is all controlled by the same business interests) is like trying to describe to an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea what the internet is. They have no reference.

When we said that CNN in Europe gave a completely different side of the news than CNN in the US, we saw nods from those who had been to Europe recently. We saw skepticism on the faces of many others. But it’s true. CNN in Europe actually covers climate change as an ongoing story. They actually mention the conviction of 11 CIA agents in Italy for illegal rendition flights. They do features on peak oil, peak water, and peak coal. And CNN is not even the best at reporting these stories; there are many others who do a better job, like Al-Jazeera and The Guardian.

One has to wonder what happens when a story like the CIA convictions reaches the home bureau on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Who has the kill switch? Well, actually, that switch is now in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle in New York (something poetic there) because Ted Turner sold CNN to Time many years ago (donating the profits to the United Nations Foundation).

Getting back to the fog around climate, we have to conclude that probably 99 percent of USAnians simply don’t get it. They don’t get the existential threat. Polls suggest that over the past year, the public opinion meter in the US is actually moving in the opposite direction. At the Copenhagen Summit, we couldn’t say that everyone gets it, but a very high percentage did, more outside the Bella Center than inside. In Europe the portion of the population that gets it is less than a majority, but high enough to affect the calculus of anyone thinking of public office.

A conversation that excludes such essential realities is delusional, and without that conversation — which took place outside the Bella Center in the final days of Brokenhagen, not inside — there will not be the margin needed to build-out a renewable energy infrastructure at top speed, or provide a basic safety net for food, ocean-level coastal cities, or halting spreading deserts, all of which were needed like… yesterday.

As nonrenewable resources deplete, people in Tennessee, like most places, will involuntarily give up their energy-dense, import-dependent, over-consumptive standard of living for a modest way of life supported entirely by local resources and local arrangements. There could be an anarchic transition, but a local economy will be the end result in any event. Glocalization is the new word for it.

Even a more pastoral future, however, could be gone by the time our children have grandchildren. Imagine Nashville with an average summer temperature of 100, and daily highs of 140. Nashville with no trees, no rain, scant air conditioning, and the Cumberland River run dry.

In the meeting at the church, several people warned us that climate change was a plot to bring about world government, and the UN would be the vessel. This is the Lyndon LaRouche frame. We said that Nashville hardly needs to worry about world government, it will be lucky if its fire department still works in ten years. We are headed for civilizational collapse, and if the global economic system has reached its Peter Principle of complexity and is imploding to a lower level of incompetence, nothing so complicated as World Government stands a chance. As for the United Nations, the Church of Scientology probably has more money, more employees and better buildings. The UN infrastructure is smaller than the combined dealerships for Saturn, and look what happened to them.

Congressman Marsha Blackburn is on the House Select Committee on Climate Change. She says any plans to deal with climate change would “destroy millions of American jobs and damage our economic competitiveness for decades.” She called the Copenhagen outcome “unilateral action” “to pile more regulation on the backs of families and small businesses in the name of combating global warming.”

Senator Lamar Alexander said the “Climategate” scandal has been harmful to the scientific community and could complicate the already-difficult task of getting climate change legislation through Congress. “If you want to give scientists the approximate credibility of politicians, this is the way to do it,” he said. He has voted against every climate measure of any consequence.

Senator Jim Corker presents himself as not a climate denier, but merely raising concerns about climate legislation. He wants a “more informed conversation” about the cap and trade bill, so as to get “a better product.” In this way he doesn’t associate himself with the sunspot fringe, but he gets to vote against every climate bill anyway. Hmmm, sounds like Jim Cooper.

Congressman Cooper’s only piece of legislation on climate was a bill he introduced to honor Al Gore and the IPCC on receipt of the Nobel Prize. In fact, most of Cooper’s legislative acts begin with words like Commending, Encouraging, Honoring, Congratulating. As in Congratulating the University of Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt on her 1000th victory. Cooper does about 100 of these bills every session. He keeps his head down and takes the PAC money.

In Tennessee, the sunspot advocates have no need for Corker or Cooper as long as they have Zach Wamp. When he is not dialing around to help his friends at the C-street house get out of legal or marital financial troubles, or defending The Family, as the C-street Children of God group is known, Wamp is busy ramping up his gubernatorial campaign. As in “Goober-natorial.” Wamp doesn’t believe warming is man-made, or in peak oil (he thinks it is 150 years away). He is a “Drill Baby Drill” kind of guy, a candidate Sarah Palin might turn to as a running mate. Wamp is all a-gush over GMO cellulosic ethanol, fuel cells, “Next Generation Nuclear Power,” fusion, and electric cars. He doesn’t get it yet that “Next Generation Nuclear” is the sun. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, the former TVA director gets to waste more billions pursuing these dead-end futures. And he could be the next Governor of our state.

Texas Congressman Joe Barton said in Copenhagen, “We're not going to let jobs be destroyed in America for some esoteric environmental benefit 100 years from now.” He is the epitome of those who did not get the picture, who crashed the conference at the end, and who wrecked all the work that had gone before, including the UN process. Considering that the US currently spends five times more every year on the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Yemen/Iran/Iraq than it proposed for the whole world to spend on mitigation and adaptation by 2020, it would be easy to put Barton’s sentiment into the mouth of Barack Obama:
“We're not going to be distracted from the War on Terror for some esoteric environmental benefit 100 years from now.”
Put another way, and perhaps more realistically, is to say “We're not going to be distracted from the War on Terror in order to prevent the extinction of life on Earth.”

But then, to be able to say that, you actually have to get that right now there is an existential choice. One hundred years from now, there will be no choice. So far, we are not having that conversation. To get into it, you have to travel.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Airport Droids Attack Human Gene Pool

— Ashley Houston, 32, as she waited for a plane in Phoenix (Reuters). 

If you were against transhumanism before, perhaps you should give it another look. Our bodies are the product of a billion years of nature’s evolutionary processes, but the War on Terror is about to irrevocably corrupt our gene pool, causing untold immune system and other genetic damage to future generations, and possibly rendering the DNA coding that we are based on unacceptably toxic.

We may need to port our intelligence to a machine, or to cyberspace, if “human” intelligence is to survive in today’s toxic environment.

While Homeland Security has installed Backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) into airports while successfully avoiding an environmental impact statement, and the Justice Department is now fighting FOIA requests for technical specifications (filed by EPIC, Electronic Privacy Information Center), we already know that backscatter radiation may interfere directly with DNA. Although the ionizing radiation is small, the terahertz waves the machines generate do more than show your private parts to the screener. They have been found to “unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”

Radiation waves occur naturally in the environment, and we’re hit with them all the time. But should we bombard ourselves with them unwillingly every time we want to board a flight? Initially the machines were supposed to be voluntary. Suddenly they are not.

The TSA issued a blog saying:
“Backscatter X-ray technology uses X-rays that penetrate clothing, but not skin, to create an image. Millimeter wave technology uses sensors to collect millimeter wave energy to measure the difference in radiated energy relative to each object against a common background (the human body produces these signatures in typical screening applications) to construct a composite image.

“For comparison purposes, the X-ray dose received from the backscatter system is equivalent to the radiation received in two minutes of airplane flight at altitude (.04 millirem by backscatter [2 scans] compared to .0552 millirem for two minutes of flight).

“The [non-ionizing radio frequency] energy projected by the system is 10,000 times less than a cell phone transmission (.00000597 mW/cm2 for millimeter wave technology compared to 37.5 mW/cm2 for a cellphone).”

We don’t know about you, but whenever we hear a government agency use these kinds of comparisons we check our wallet.

Backscatter X-rays are nothing like the cosmic radiation we get at high altitudes, flights included. Nor is background radiation — or cellphone radiation — safe, thank you very much.

Medical science already knows how much terahertz radiation is safe for the body to absorb: none. You can think of it like sunlight — a little may be fine while a lot, you frequent flyers, may be deadly. However, where ionizing radiation is concerned, there is something called the superlinear dose response that wrecks that sunlight analogy. Middling range exposures are fine because they destroy the cells they hit. Low range exposures are far deadlier, because DNA is mutated but the cells survive to divide.

Our genome is smaller than that of an ear of corn, with about the same number of genes as an earthworm. DNA’s secrets are not just in the genes, but in the way the code is arranged. In the human cell, certain chemical bonds are crucial to the integrity of the genetic code and breaking just a few of these bonds may endow the code with a permanent alteration. When a mutated gene is responsible for regulating normal cell growth, an uncontrolled proliferation of damaged cells, or cancer, can develop. When mutation occurs in the procreative cells or in the developing embryo, birth defects can result. When mutation occurs in the blood-forming tissue, impairment of the immune response system can result, and this can increase susceptibility to an entire spectrum of human disease.

Radiation is therefore said to be mutagenic (cell-mutating), carcinogenic (cancer-causing), teratogenic (birth-defect inducing), and immuno-suppressing (resistance-impairing). All of these effects, which begin at a submicroscopic level, remain invisible for extended periods of time until they reach observable proportions. The latent period may be decades in the case of an incipient cancer, or it may be centuries in the case of a genetic effect.

Even where the risk is very slight, if the population to be exposed is very large — several billion air-traveler-exposures annually — the epidemiological burden is overcome and real deaths result. Far more deaths, it may be (we won’t know as long as FOIA immunity reigns) than deaths from terrorist air hijackings.

Most predictive models also make the assumption that the exposed population is homogeneous. In fact, there are subgroupings for susceptibility in the population, and equal radiation exposure can increase disease by five to ten times in the more susceptible groups over the less susceptible. All men are not created equal, and the burden of environmental radioactivity will fall more heavily on some than on others, depending on their genes. Children are very vulnerable. Fetuses even more so. As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has acknowledged,
“Because our present state of knowledge precludes all possible meaningful quantifications of the relative radiosensitivity of a given individual, it is true that persons are not necessarily equally ‘protected’ by current federal regulations designed to protect the general population as a whole.”

One concept of the genetic mutation process put forward by the National Academy of Sciences employed a line of nucleoproteins in a normal sequence something like this: AGT-AGT-AGT-AGT-AGT-AGT-AGT.... In this model the DNA code is read and transmitted in groups of three proteins. Consider what happens if the sequence is disturbed, such as when a speeding terahertz wave dislodges one protein in the chain. The entire sequence is thrown off until two counterbalancing breaks occur that throw it back into correct order. Until then it is read: AG-TAG-TAG-TAG-TAG-TAG-TAG....

Suppose the AGT sequence was for brain cells, but the TAG sequence was for stomach muscles. You could get something pretty weird happening. It may have been from mutations such as these that all of us evolved. As a species, we arrived at our present form by selection of favorable mutations and elimination of unfavorable mutations, which is not to say it was a pleasant process for those individuals with the unfavorable mutations. The rate of genetic translocations in humans caused by ionizing radiation and estimated in the current the scientific literature ranges from 24 to 1,330 translocations per unit of radiation (rad) per million live births per generation. It takes on the order of 100 generations to eliminate each unfavorable mutation from the genetic pool, whether it is for a fruit fly or a baboon.

Biostatistician Rosalie Bertell has suggested that elevation of the background level of mutagens in combination with mutations which interfere with normal reproduction could result in sudden species extinction, which, if the species is humans, by the time we recognized the threat, we could be powerless to counter.

The US Supreme Court has marked this territory with a bright line. Where rights to be protected are clearly enumerated, are “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of the nation as to be ranked as fundamental,” or are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,” so that failure to protect them would mark a departure from first principles, federal authority should be conditioned upon the demonstration of an overriding interest of compelling importance, the absence of less damaging alternatives for meeting that interest, and some method of limiting or restricting the scope of the excursion and redressing the injustice created.

Over the past decade, in the United States alone, we’ve had sixteen million flights that got to their destinations without incident for every flight that was victimized by crime. Should we punish the millions of safe passengers to deter the one criminal? Should we sacrifice our future genetic heritage for the sake of an abstract, and likely unobtainable, perfection of our “security?”

How we define security matters. We should force ourselves to thoroughly examine alternatives in the future before embarking upon any new governmental encroachments, or putting new wrinkles on old encroachments, that carry species-ending health implications.

And Mr. Obama, tear down that secrecy wall.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


— Rahel, Sad Song

In our 19th summer we invented a new sport. It may not have been all that new (or all that sporting) but those were the pre-Rough Guide Sixties, so it seemed new to us. The idea was to survive and thrive in some foreign urban environment with no money. Not $5 per day. Not $10 per day. Nothing.

We were thrust into this game quite by accident when we had our wallet pickpocketed in the bombed out Hamburg Hauptbahnhof  while shaving in the mens room on a July day in 1966. With it went our passport, cash, travelers’ cheques and Eurailpass. We tried lots of ways to get help — police, American Express, consulate, Western Union — and nothing worked. Without money we could not get a replacement passport. Without passport we could not get replacement cheques or wired money from family. We were in a perfect Catch 22. With no ID we were personless. With no language skills we were mute. With no money, we were homeless and foodless. Rather than scream, we sat down on a park bench, immersed in exhilaration. What freedom!

We did work our way through that one and have to say it was extraordinarily fun. Urban foraging and newfound friends saw us through — rescue by social networking. We nearly joined the German Merchant Marine, but our university studies beckoned and so we returned home in the fall.

Some years later, while staying in a Kinneret kibbutz, we learned the story of Rahel Bluwstein, Palestine’s poet laureate (1890-1931). A brilliant agronomist and early kibbutz pioneer at age 19, Rahel was sent by Kvutzat Kinneret to a trade show in Paris, got caught up in World War I, had to make her way across the lines to safety in Moscow, lived on garbage and poetry there, opened a school for Jewish refugee children, then in 1919 walked backed to Israel, but because of tuberculosis was refused accommodation by Kibbutz Degania. Once more back to living on garbage and poetry, she wrote haunting lines for the Jerusalem Hebrew newspaper until her death at age 40.

While never doing anything as hard as a walk from Moscow to Degania with tuberculosis, we have had many more chances to play the urban survival game in the past 50 years, and each time it improves our skills and winds up being fun, despite the hardship. The downside is always short discomfort — no food, no water, sleeping in public places, cold, police harassment, etc. The upside is beating the odds, new skills, a greater sense of security, and knowing you can take setbacks and not just survive, but thrive.

Now that we are over 60 we don’t go looking for this but occasionally it still finds us, such as when we were forced to stand from sunrise to sunset outside the Bella Center awaiting a new UN credential, temperatures below zero and snowing, and there were no toilets or food.

In the past 72 hours we got a new challenge, and it put all our old skills to the test. We think this is the kind of thing many more of us will experience more frequently as complex systems implode so it bears reporting here.

Due to ice and snow on Saturday night, the Sunday morning Copenhagen-to-Paris flight was 3 hours late taking off, but the blizzard had also socked Paris so our connection was waiting. Unfortunately, our wallet didn't make it off the Copenhagen plane. The fanny pack must have separated from the buckle and was left on the plane seat. We didn't notice until we had to re-enter security at a distant terminal and then, since our flight was already boarding, we decided against going back. We spoke with the Air France steward, they called over and located the pack and promised it would be returned.

That done, we settled back into the 7 hour flight to JFK with the full range of Air France amenities, including a USB jack on their 7-inch seatback monitors, free movies on demand, champagne and a first rate menu of free food, even for the economy class.

When we landed in JFK and had passed customs, we learned our final Nashville leg had been cancelled, along with 3000 other flights, and there were a million passengers frantically trying to re-book on top of an already straining holiday booking surge. It took a three-hour queue just to see an agent. “Friday,” she said, looking up from her screen with slumped shoulders and the dazed glare of a salary-cut-conceded airline stakeholder who had been the sounding board for colorful invectives in six languages for nine hours. “Friday” as in “You will be home Friday.” Since it was Sunday night, this was a bit daunting. Because it was weather-related, there would be no meal or lodging coupons. Looking around, there were people sleeping on the floor. Some of them had been there two days.

The standby queues for any given flight out of JFK were 25 deep, offering little hope to the newcomer. Had we gone back for our wallet we might have missed our New York flight but would have had cash and plastic. Hindsight is always 20-20. Without cash, plastic and a driver’s license we could not rent a car, take the bus or train, book a different airline, eat or get a hotel room (even if there were any, which there weren’t).

In the Tibetian Book of Yoga and Secret Doctrines it says, “Adversity being a teacher of the true way is not necessarily to be avoided.” In any survival situation, the drill is always the same. Secured from immediate danger, you take inventory.

So we stabilized and took inventory. Our advantages were so strong it was almost not a fair game. We had warm clothes, canteen and compass. We had peanuts and bottled water, courtesy of Air France. We had native language, a passport, a plane ticket and citizenship. Best of all, we had a laptop and a cell phone. That meant we had Facebook, Linked-In, and Twitter.

With a day pass on T-mobile, we got home by Tuesday, arriving not only with a pocketful of peanuts, cookies, pretzels and dollars (thank you Tim Quinn of Google), but two apples, a banana and a full canteen. We’d had on-line offers to bring us sandwiches or order us a pizza. It was Christmas. Note to self: next time we risk weather delay on air travel, bring a power strip to help others charge up laptops, phones, iPods and shavers. In an airport where people are living for days, every free wall socket is precious.


We are still mulling the meaning of humanity’s giant step away from survival. No targets, no timetables, no firm commitments, a crash of the carbon market, massive disinvestment in renewables and a switch back to coal and gas — all of these are the “Copenhagen Outcome.”

Perhaps the strangest and most serious outcome was the damage wrought to the UN negotiation process itself. One needs to go back and re-read the 1972 Stockholm principles, the document that emerged from the 21st plenary session of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. From the preamble, authored by Maurice Strong:

“Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale.


“The natural growth of population continuously presents problems for the preservation of the environment, and adequate policies and measures should be adopted, as appropriate, to face these problems.


“A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes. There are broad vistas for the enhancement of environmental quality and the creation of a good life. What is needed is an enthusiastic but calm state of mind and intense but orderly work.”

With our laptop and a wall socket at JFK, we were able to watch Rachel Maddow’s interview with Andrea Mitchell and learn how freakish and noir the COP-15 talks really were. Looking for Premier Wen Jiabao of China, President Obama followed a lead to a back room at the Bella Center, his press pool in tow.

Before the COP, the United States and China had been sniping at each other over demands that Beijing agree to international monitoring, ostensibly to verify its pledge to reduce by 40% the carbon intensity of its economy (the rate of emissions per unit of economic activity, something that is easy to do if you are growing your GDP by 10% annually).

After the President and Hillary Clinton made some snarky remarks about China’s transparency, Premier Wen used diplomatic finesse to express his official displeasure. Twice on Friday, Mr. Wen sent an underling to represent him at meetings with Mr. Obama. Each time it was a lower-level official.

The White House made a point of noting the snub in a statement to reporters. According to an aide who passed it to the New York Times, Mr. Obama confided to his staff: “I don’t want to mess around with this anymore. I want to talk to Wen.” The story the Times then began spinning has formed the official frame of the talks — China was the bad actor, the US President stood tall and went dragon hunting, he slew the beast in its lair, and emerged with a new Accord, which was not the best, but the best that could be salvaged. “This progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.” The carpenters then moved in to break the site down and make way for a trade show of home furnishings.

What actually appears to have happened is that the US came into the UN meeting with all the style and substance of John Bolton, Dubya’s UN ambassador. Arriving on the final day with a lame, lowball proposal, Obama tried to ram a strictly voluntary, symbolic pledge system down the throats of the delegates, who despite the media clouding, were actually close to several important agreements.

China backed Africa. Africa did not want voluntary, symbolic pledges. So the White House tried to set up a third meeting between Obama and Wen. It also set up a separate meeting with Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Manmohan Singh of India. China apparently got wind of this sequence of meetings and called those players together on its own, before the Obama meeting.

When Denis McDonough, the national security council chief of staff, and Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, learned of the Chinese pre-meeting, they passed the word to the President and he rushed to China’s room.

It bears mentioning here that the Bella Center has a very curious layout, thanks to the Danish hosts. All of the national delegations were assigned a Bella Center office and display space for administration, conferencing and receptions, which was typically a plastic-walled Star Wars battlecruiser cubicle between 24 and 48 square meters in size. There were no distinctions based on population size, GDP, or emissions, but there were some differences in both placement (near or far) and size between G-77 (130 poor countries, green in the image), G-30 (the industrial economies headed by Merrill Lynch’s William McDonough, no relation), and a few VIP countries who rated special treatment.

China, with a quarter of the world population and 15% of GHG emissions, was given a 2-room box in the back row of offices. The US, with 5% of the population and 25% of the emissions, got a glass skybox suite with conference rooms, communications center and a mini-Oval Office. This was the safe home for climate deniers James (Torture-9) Inhofe and Marsha (No Czars, No Death Panels, Demand Obama’s Birth Certificate) Blackburn, as well as the travel office for high-level junketeers Nancy Pelosi, Bart Gordon, Henry Waxman, John Kerry, Ed Markey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Doyle and many, many other USAnians needing photo ops in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Locating China’s tiny room at the downstairs back, just behind the boiler room, under the steam vents, where the greenish neon lights flash intermittently through a high window and there is a faint odor of solvents, Mr. Obama called from the doorway. “Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me? Are you ready?” From inside a room that was already stuffed with Presidents Zuma, Lula, Singh and their top aides and translators, Wen, surprised, beckoned Obama to enter.

The Chinese, who had to send their people out to make room for Obama and his aides, balked at admitting the White House press pool to the fluorescent-lit craps game. Gibbs pressed forward with the pool’s photographer. “My guys get in or we’re leaving the meeting.” They squeezed Gibbs in, which yielded this (hands over head) photo from Doug Mills at the NY Times:

Despite whatever had been discussed by Zuma, Lula, Singh and Wen before Obama arrived, the US got its wish for a barebones “accord.” Danish hosts Rassmussen and Hedegaard, and UN leaders Ban Ki Moon and Yvo de Boer, none of whom had slept more than 2 hours in the previous 48 trying to broker a highest denominator deal, were not invited.

Obama, seated, started by asking what they could agree on. That settled a number of issues, including changing the wording on monitoring and verification to satisfy Mr. Wen. The other 188 countries were not asked for an opinion, although Mr. Obama then shopped his “Copenhagen Accord” around to a few European leaders, who each declined to join such an outrageous outlaw process. Ban Ki Moon and Yvo de Boer tried to put a nice face on it, but had to be steaming inside. They said the next COP in Mexico would resume the process, but as George Monbiot opined, Mexico is where negotiations go to die.

Having destroyed the whole notion of consensus negotiations carefully crafted over the 37 years since Stockholm, Mr. Obama joined his waiting motorcade and exited. In 8 hours, he had done more to destroy the fabric of the United Nations than his predecessor had accomplished in 8 years.

As for the $10 billion dollar per year pledge Hillary Clinton offered to support clean green economies in the 2/3 world, beginning in 2012, the US knows it will simply borrow that money from China and the loan will vanish in the slippage of the dollar against the huan.

Hugo Chavez told Amy Goodman, “We have to transition ourselves to a post-petroleum era, and that is what we must discuss.”

Goodman asked him about reducing Venezuela’s emissions. Chavez replied, “We must reduce emissions 100 percent… We are in agreement — we must reduce all the emissions that are destroying the planet. However that requires a change in lifestyle, a change in the economic model. We must go from capitalism to socialism, that’s the real solution.”

“How do you throw away capitalism?” Goodman asked. Chavez replied, “They way they did it in Cuba. The way we are doing it in Venezuela. Give the power to the people and take it away from the elites. You can only do that through revolution.”

Being more evolutionary than revolutionary, we are still betting on the dolphins. They can survive even without T-mobile and a laptop.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My COP15 Journal: Day Sixteen

 — George Monbiot, The Guardian, 18 Dec 2009

Last Day: When we arrived in Copenhagen 16 days ago, we were met by Ross and Hildur Jackson, our hosts at a farm near Birkerød, just outside the city. Hildur had been organizing the Windows of Hope meeting at Christiania and Ross had been drafting white papers and talking points for the Global Ecovillage Network to share with delegates during the negotiations. Ross intends to expand his central position paper, The Breakaway Strategy, into a book soon, and the core of that document turned out to be remarkably prescient as to the outcome of COP-15.

In The Breakaway Strategy, Ross prescribed the ideal components of a fair and binding climate treaty:
  1. It should guarantee that the adopted CO2 emissions target will be met with 100% certainty. We will not have two chances to avoid runaway warming. We must get it right the first time;
  2. It should be effective and cost-efficient;
  3. It should be equitable in order to get the backing of all 7 billion world citizens who are the ultimate owners of the biosphere; and
  4. It should be simple and transparent.

The “Kyoto approach” of negotiating CO2  reduction targets, credit bargaining, technology transfer and who pays what to whom — fails all four criteria. If there was any doubt, we need only revisit these past two weeks.

Ironically — and the irony was heightened by the decision of the Danish government 4 days ago to exclude the non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) from the Bella Center — at least three proposals had been put forward by the NGO community over the last two years that fulfill all four criteria. They are:
  1. The Earth Atmospheric Trust
  2. Kyoto2
  3. The Carbon Board.[note]

To Ross’s three we would add two Irish NGO proposals, Cap and Share and the Carbon Maintenance Fee, based on New Zealand’s prototype Land Use and Carbon Analysis System (LUCAS) to provide a robust and comprehensive carbon reporting and accounting system. Admittedly both of these additions involve more government involvement (and potential for corruption) than the simpler Carbon Board solution cited in The Breakaway Strategy.

The strategy has two components, a top-down political initiative, and a bottom-up civil society initiative. Recognizing that the major powers are locked into a national interest battle and unable to act in the global interest, the strategy turns to some of the smaller nations, such as Maldives and Tuvalu, that are freer and more committed to take on leadership. The Carbon Board, which allocates pollution on a per capita rationing system, is just one example of how such a partnership can function in practice. It administers a reward and punishment system for policing the atmosphere, but could as easily be applied to rationing everything humans are ruining or depleting to extinction — fisheries, food, water, or phosphorus, for instance.

The first step would be for the organizers to leave the World Trade Organization (WTO), hence the name breakaway. The WTO is a major part of the problem because it prevents individual nations from introducing environmentally friendly production methods and subsidizing industries that go green.

From the start of the COP-15 meetings it became evident that a very different agenda was being worked than the Kyoto, multilateral, inclusive, transparent, “shared but differentiated” commitment process that had evolved since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

Within hours of the opening, the buzz in the halls was all about the secret text that Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen had been circulating to just the G8 parties. Inexplicably, the UN had begun to function like the WTO. Some called it an “Am-Bush.” Others called it “Kyotic.”

Rasmussen, as head of Venstre, the right wing party, and a coalition including the rabid anti-immigrant party in Denmark, had become the official host of the meeting. Until midway through the second week of the COP, that role had fallen on the more capable shoulders of Denmark’s former environmental minister, Connie Hedegaard. With years of experience at the UN, and in the Kyoto process particularly, Hedegaard knew the players, the positions, and was respected as fair and impartial. 

Rasmussen would, in contrast, become known for high-handed demands, back-room wheeling and dealing, mass arrest and detention of protestors on suspicion of future traffic obstruction, demoting Hedegaard on the eve of the final high-level talks, and then abruptly bringing her back in to try to salvage a deal, barring the civil sector IGOs and NGOs from the meeting midway through the second week, after putting them through torturous and repeated dawn-till-dark outdoor linestandings in freezing cold and blowing snow, and then breaking with the EU and G-77 to back the USA's “coalition of the willing” approach.

Leaving the NGOs out in the cold — literally — meant that none of civil society's detailed ideas could rise to the surface when they were most needed to break out of government sector's impasse. Instead, the US came in and tried to bully China, and China, in a geopolitical-orbit-shifting rebuke, stood firm and did not blink. The US limped home with a spin-doctored document, while China was revealed as the emerging world power to be reckoned with. Some of that had to do with China’s massive investments in Africa and the two-thirds world over the past decade, which had built it a large store of political capital. Unfortunately, it spent a big hunk of that when it sold out Africa to the 5-party outcome.

Naomi Klein said, “Africa was sacrificed. The position of the G77 negotiating bloc, including African states, had been clear: a 2C increase in average global temperatures translates into a 3–3.5C increase in Africa. That means, according to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, ‘an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger,’ and ‘water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people.’”

Rasmussen and the G8 powers led by the Obama delegation, made their case for colonialism. What was being colonized and divided between occupying powers was not the G77, but the sky. For a mere ten billion dollars per year, G8 shareholders were sold a carbon market worth $1.2 trillion per year. Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development said that rich countries were allowed to exchange “beads and blankets for Manhattan,” adding, “[They]'ve carved up the last remaining unowned resource and allocated it to the wealthy.”

With a $100 billion/year buy-out (first payment — 2020, a US election year) — or one army-year in Kabul, shared out between 193 countries, citizens from the Maldives will be offered hotel rooms in Houston the way New Orleans hurricane refugees were.

Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said, “In a cruel irony I have just learned that the three Greenpeace activists who, posing as world leaders, entered the Danish Palace for the State Dinner on Thursday night to unfurl a banner calling for a real climate deal are to spend the next three weeks in jail.  They will be away from their families over Christmas and the New Year. The real leaders, who attempted to get real action are now in jail, while the alleged 'leaders' got clean away, and are fleeing the Copenhagen climate crime scene in private jets and 747s.”

In the end, just five countries signed the “Copenhagen Outcome,” a mushy mishmash of voluntary pledges. They left some serious heavy lifting for November 2010, when COP-16 convenes in Mexico. There the chair will be Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa,   a man to whom Lars Lokke Rasmussen must surely have looked to as a role model to guide him on steering a fractious political process to the safe harbor of crystal chandeliers, overstuffed chairs before the fire, a snifter of Cognac, and a good cigar — perhaps Cuban.

If anyone can keep those solution-oriented NGO ideas out of the process at COP-16, it will be Felipe Calderón.
[note] Ross Jackson, “An Ideal Climate Agreement?” (Permaculture Magazine, UK, no.58 Winter 2008). See (Articles, English), “Climate Solutions: Part I, Comparisons” and “Climate Solutions: Part 2, The Carbon Board.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My COP15 Journal: Day Fifteen

Day 15: This has been such an exhausting day, after such an exhausting two weeks, and it is now midnight so we thought of just going straight to bed and post something in the morning, but so many new readers have picked up this blog that we felt we could not disappoint. We will make a short post now and then elaborate more tomorrow.

There is a climate deal in Copenhagen. It came after a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, crushed expectations and renewed hope, posturing politicians and pleas for sanity.

The newspaper headline this morning was “Kan Han?” [Can he do it?] over a picture of Obama. When President O made his opening address, expectations were very high that he would break the logjam and move the treaty to conclusion. Instead, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Repeating the lame pledges that Hillary Clinton had outlined the day before, he was greeted by boos and jeers in the Klimaforum, the temporary home of many of the exiled NGOs, or at least those who had not been arrested or packed up and left in disgust.

Why was he booed? Because the US offer was 3 to 4% reductions in GHG from 1990 levels by 2020, which everyone here knows is only 10% of what is needed to stabilize the climate at a 2 degree increase by mid-century. The EU has pledged a multilateral cut of 35 percent. China 40 percent. The US and China combine to produce 40% of all greenhouse gases. Tallying all the pledges, we were still 4 gigatons per year short of the 2 degree (350 ppm) target, which meant we could see 3 degrees by mid-century, meaning 5 to 6 degrees in Africa.

Evo Morales had called for changing the target to 1 degree. He pledged Bolivia would become carbon neutral like the Maldives is. When Obama arrived and still spoke about the lame US target as though it were something of value, people booed. If the US were to rise to the EU pledge level, the target could be met and the treaty would have been signed. The US economy would have had a shot in the arm and a whole new industry would be born. Without that pledge, however, nothing works, the talks are doomed, and the planet we call home may die. People here love Obama. They were deeply disappointed today.

On Danish TV, the anchor asked their reporter standing in front of a backdrop of the White House why it was so hard for the US to understand the urgency. The reporter replied (and my Danish is weak so this is a paraphrase): One in eight children (in the US) goes to bed hungry at night. People die in the thousands without health care. There are two million in prison, more than in China. People are losing their jobs, and their homes. To say that climate change takes on less importance when one is confronted with such challenges is realistic.

Even though Denmark now has a right wing government (as we have seen from the police tactics, expulsion of NGOs from the climate talks, and suspension of civil rights this past week) all of those conditions which the reporter described for the United States are almost inconceivable here. How could a country as industrious as the US be so poor in social capital?

A pledge of carbon neutrality, coming from the US, would have changed everything in the climate summit. President Obama would have been the knight in shining armor. US honor would have been restored.

Instead, the US delegation framed this as a blame game and China was the bad guy. In actuality, China pledged transparency from the moment Hillary Clinton finished the press conference on Thursday where the Bad China talking point emerged. The press reported, “Clinton said Washington would press the world to come up with a climate aid fund amounting to $100 billion a year by 2020, a move that was quickly followed by an offer from China to open its reporting on actions to reduce carbon emissions to international review.”

When Obama said China was not being transparent and that was a deal-breaker, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met with Obama and offered new transparency commitments. Obama said he was satisfied, only to inexplicably reverse that position later in the day. This kabuki played out two or three more times. Eventually it was obvious to most in the Bella Center that it was US and China bickering that was holding up the deal.

By the end of the morning, the EU was circulating a draft text dubbed the "Copenhagen Accord." The 120 world leaders still present were given two hours to offer amendments. Here is how that draft text read:
"Recognizing the scientific view that the increase in global temperatures ought not to exceed 2 degrees, and on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development, parties commit to a vigorous response through immediate and enhanced national action based on strengthened international cooperation."
"Ambitious action to mitigate climate change is needed with developed countries taking the lead. Parties recognize the critical impact of climate change on countries particularly vulnerable to its adverse effect and stress the need to establish a comprehensive adaptation programme including international support.
“Deep cuts in global emissions are required."
"Annex One parties to the Convention commit to implement, individually or jointly, the quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020 as listed, yielding in aggregate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of "X" percent in 2020 compared to 1990 and "Y" percent in 2020 compared to 2005."
[The use of “and” here instead of “or” is important. The US is the only country calculating its proposed reductions from 2005 (17%) instead of 1990 (3%). This requires them to calculate both],
"Non Annex One parties to the Convention resolve to implement mitigation actions based on their specific national circumstances. Frequency of submissions of non Annex One parties will be every 2 years ... subject to their domestic auditing and assessment ... Clarification may, upon request, be provided by the party concerned at its discretion to respond to any question contained in a national communication ... Supported nationally appropriate mitigation actions shall be subject to international verification".
"Scaled up, new and additional, predictable and adequate funding shall be provided by developed country parties.
“Parties shall provide new and additional resources of $30 billion for 2010-12.
“In the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, the parties support the goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year to address the climate change needs of developing countries.
“This funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.
“A Copenhagen Climate Fund shall be established as an operating entity."
"The parties call for a review of this decision and implementation in 2016
“(Negotiations on a legal text would continue) with a view to adopting one or more legal instruments under the convention as soon as possible and no later than COP 16 (a meeting due in Mexico in November 2009)"

The EU had said earlier the world should aim to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 from 1990 levels, with rich nations cutting their emissions by 80 percent. Premier Wen told delegates that China's voluntary targets of reducing its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent would require "tremendous efforts."

"We will honor our word with real action," Wen said. In stark contrast, the US was still committing to only a 3% cut, and then pointing fingers.

To the NGO community, which is now barred from the COP-15 conference,  50 by '50 looked like a pretty good accord, even if more would be needed later. Apparently some countries had problems with it, however, because over the late afternoon and evening hours, the text weakened significantly,

Some objected to language about 2010 commitments and binding legal framework in COP-16. A clause was dropped that had called on developing countries to reduce emissions by 15-30 percent below "business as usual," that is, judged against the level had no action been taken.

A group of about 25 countries sought and won unanimous agreement on a two-page statement committing to the mobilization of $30 billion in the next three years to help poor countries cope with climate change and a scaling up to $100 billion a year by 2020. Since this satisfied the victim nations, reparations were no longer on the table.

Obama and Wen met twice, said they had taken a step forward in their talks and directed negotiators to keep working, but then fell into sniping at each other. Obama may eventually become known as "the man who killed Copenhagen," said Greenpeace U.S. Executive Director Phil Radford.

Brazil's Lula da Silva said a miracle would be needed. "I am not sure if such an angel or wise man will come down to this plenary and put in our minds the intelligence that we lacked," Silva said. "I believe in God. I believe in miracles."

It is half past midnight in Denmark under a blanket of fresh snow and, while everyone was saying “It ain’t over until the black man sings,” President O and Air Force One are out over the Atlantic now.  The draft text was abandoned in favor a 5-party deal between the US, China, South Africa, India and Brazil. That, and the adaptation and mitigation funding agreed to by all, was to have been the final outcome of Copenhagen, but hang on, it ain’t over. The EU has called delegates back into session and is determined to come out with something more substantive now that the US and China circus has left town.

And tomorrow, we shall see just what that might be.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.