Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mexican Miracle: The Cancún Climate Compact

What a difference a few hours can make. This morning I was sitting in the Moon Palace next to Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones listening to Alden Meyer of Union of Concerned Scientists downplay expectations of any success at the Climate Summit. We all expected that the real hard work of the night would only just begin around midnight, and that endless haggling would end in stalemate, or maybe a few crumbs falling from the table.

At risk was the UN’s credibility as a negotiating venue. Putting a failure in Cancun back to back with the failure in Copenhagen would certainly raise many brows about the UN’s ability to broker a multilateral deal over such a difficult subject.

Sitting there listening to Meyer, I finished my blog post begun the day before and pushed the send button. I had condemned the US for its intransigence, obstructionism, weak-kneed wishywashyness and half-hearted pledges. Since then, I'd watched in awe as the US negotiator, Todd Stern, was whoopingly cheered by the entire assembly. He had just agreed to a text of the final 37-page document that reads, in part:

Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWGLCA)

The Conference of the Parties...

Recognising that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversile threat to human societies and the planet...

1. Affirms that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and that all Parties share a vision for long-term cooperative action in order to achieve the objective of the Convention ... through the achievement of a common goal, on the basis of equity and in accordance with common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities....

4. Further recognizes that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science... with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.... Also recognizes the need to ... consider strengthening the long-term global goal on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge ... to a global average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius....

6. Also agrees that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible....

12. Affirms that enhanced action on adaptation should be undertaken in accordance with the Convention; follow a country-driven, gender-sensitive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems; and be based on and guided by the best available science, and, as appropriate, traditional and indigenous knowledge; with a view to integrating into relevant social, economic, and environmental policies and actions....

III/ Acknowledging that the largest share of historical global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries and that, owing to this historical responsibility, developed country Parties must take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof,

37. Urges developed country Parties to increase the ambition of their economy-wide emission reduction targets, with a view to reducing their aggregate anthropogenic emissions....

40. Decides ... to enhance reporting in the national communications of Parties ... as follows:

(a) Developed countries should submit annual greenhouse gas inventories and inventory reports and biennial reports ... including ... actions to achieve their economy-wide emissions targets and emissions reductions achieved, projected emissions and on the provision of financial, technology, and capacity-building support to developing country Parties....

45. Decides that developed countries should develop low-carbon development strategies or plans....

48. Agrees that developing country Parties will take nationally appropriate mitigation actions in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, aimed at achieving a deviation in emissions relative to ‘business as usual’ emissions in 2020....

65. Encourages developing countries to develop low-carbon development strategies or plans in the context of sustainable development....

Those excerpts only go as far as page 12, leaving 2/3 of the document to go, but you get the idea. The next section is on the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks, with safeguards for land tenure, indigenous peoples, etc.

Then comes a section on using markets to speed up the process, going for the so-called “low-hanging fruit,” while safeguarding ecosystem integrity and fair and equitable distribution of profits.

In particular, the text underscores the economic and social consequences of responses to climate change, urging the Parties to take note of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to avoid arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.

The provision on fast-start financing commits $30 billion dollars for the period of 2010-2012 with a balanced allocation between adaptation and mitigation, putting priority on the most vulnerable, such as small island developing states and Africa.

The provision on long-term financing commits to raise $100 billion dollars per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries, to flow through a “Green Climate Fund.” The structure of the fund is set out in fine detail, including governance, voting and accountability. The board has 15 members from developed countries and 25 from developing. The World Bank is appointed to serve as Trustee for the first 3 years.

All that takes the document to the halfway point.  Then there are the Technology Mechanism; the Climate Technology Centre and Network; the Expert Group on Technology Transfer; a review process that assesses the continuing adequacy of efforts to forestall catastrophic changes, beginning in 2013, full scope to be defined next year (one has to leave something for COP17 in Durban); guidance and safeguards for REDD, insuring stakeholder inclusion and respect for rights, especially regarding indigenous peoples and local communities, and that no moneys will be spent “for conversion of natural forests, but are instead used to incentivise the protection and conservation of natural forests and their ecosystem services, and to enhance other social and environmental benefits;” tasking of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice to assess progress and the adequacy of these efforts towards preventing climate change, measuring sources and sinks, and verifying actions claimed by parties, ensuring complete transparency.

To get a sense of this whole breakthrough as it was unfolding, one need only review the tweet-o-sphere archive:
10:30 pm

COP16: Presidency distributes draft of negotiations The document gathers contributions made by all working groups

AlexMStark: So: lots of vigorous support from every side, fingers crossed that Bolivia, Cuba et al won't block... going to be a long night!

OneClimate: Bangladesh: Text doesn't reflect everything we want but for the sake of the process, we feel this is a good outcome

OneClimate: Bangladesh: most vulnerable country in the world: not a qu of development for us, but of survival, and we want to move fwd


kate_sheppard: Todd Stern [USA lead delegate]: "Think this text does provide the necessary balance to do that and provide the way forward."

newscientist: US gets whooping from the floor - mad change from 3 years ago when they were booed and told to get out

alexmstark: Who could've anticipated cheers at the UNFCCC??

kate_sheppard: Stern says they should approve package, "put the world on a more hopeful path."

OneClimate: UAE: we run a great risk if we allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Substantive progress on critical issues at cop16

CYDcancun: UAE pulls the "enemy of the good" card... in a good way.

enviromedia: "This deal is not ideal, but it works." Shocking display of unity among developed and developing countries @COP16 climate Praise for Mexico

OneClimate: Tajikistan: mexico has helped to restore trust in UN process and helped small countries participate.

AndrwLight: I predict no more negotiation. Ends with near unanimous agreement around Mexican compromise

iklimkarbon: China is talking now, "We are basically satisfied"

kate_sheppard: Japan!

AlexMStark: incredible energy here at the UNFCCC, fingers crossed that it carries us through the evening

AlexMStark: Algeria: "Africa has spoken w/one voice"  "would like to support the text"

OneClimate: India: god has been very close to Mexico. I come from country that has more godesses than gods, "a goddess present too in Madam President"

OneClimate: India: let us very soon bring a halt to this process and say that we do have an agreemeing in Cancun

lmdo: Yes, let's bring a half to this process (for a bit) and say that we have an agreement in Cancun!

kate_sheppard: Ramesh of India: "You have resorted the confidence of the international community in multilateralism and the multilateral process."

AlexMStark: Colombia: "we ask that the Cancun package be adopted w/o further ado"

climatebrad: Africa, with its 1 billion people, has spoken with one unique voice: Africa would like to support the text that has been submitted

kate_sheppard: Ecuador: "We understand the enthusiasm of the delegations here, but we believe we must demand a lot more for ourselves."

enviromedia: Talking points repeated by all at COP16: 1.Thanks to Mexico. 2.This agreement isn't perfect. 3.Multilateralism, planet at stake.


kate_sheppard: Kuwait is the last speaker for this plenary.

andrea_arzaba: Kuwait: Yes Cancun CAN, Yes WOMEN CAN

climatebrad: All I can say, is if global warming is a conspiracy, it's a really weird one. Kuwait, China, US, Maldives, Ecuador...

kate_sheppard: Informal plenary over. Espinosa directs working groups to meet immediately, briefly.

OneClimate: the first time that the word 'Party' has ever felt apt in my time covering unfccc talks. What a lot of love.

tcktcktck: "Watershed in the climate process" "We are on the path that can only lead to success"

12:00 midnight

gaytanariza: Bolivia: "No existe consenso porque nosotros no estamos de acuerdo. Queremos discutir algunos temas del documento"

rjtklein: Once Bolivia is done grandstanding, world will thank Mexico for restoring trust in multilateral negotiations in the UN.

Revkin: At cop16 plenary, why didn't someone do for Bolivia what Kevin Conrad of PNG did for US in 2007 ("Step aside..."):

lmdo: @Revkin Ha, possibly because Bolivia isn't "hated" in the same way America is. But, fair point.

CYJ_COP:【ブログ更新しました!】 怒涛のCOP後半戦 
glennhurowitz: Quote of the night from East Timor: "This is almost a good document."


JeremyLeggett: So exciting to wake up and read the positive Twitter feed from Cancun. I surely wasn't expecting this. Hope lives?

CYDcancun: Opening of AWG-LCA plenary yields long standing ovation. Bolivia first to speak, crowd responds with knowing chuckles!?

AlexMStark: Margaret gave Bolivia the floor and there weas audible booing!

AlexMStark: must say, it's hard to take Bolivia's argument about Africa/AOSIS seriously when they've already endorsed this text...

CYDcancun: Bolivia holding the hard line, demanding 1.5, payment of climate debt, world bank exlusion.

jschmidtnrdc: Bolivia going point by point through the draft text...UN equivalent of the filibuster


AlexMStark: Bolivia just will not stop talking. worries about whether they'll be able to block the entire show tonight

abranches: Bolivia is speaking with no time limit as a compensation for the fact it will not be granted veto power.

tcktcktck: Bolivia no acepta el documento

AlexMStark: Guatemala: "when are we going to stop talking and start taking decisions?"

CYDcancun: Columbia: Consensus doesn't mean giving the right of veto to one country [applause]

climateinstitut: Bolivia is threatening to derail Cancun climate deal.

anjalih: Gabon: This text isn't perfect, but it offers a number of favorable prospects for the future

climatebrad: Gabon: We cannot go to extremes. Everyone understand this is affecting Africa. (Applause)

eco_singapore: Guatemala: I wonder when we are going to stop talking and start acting.


climatebrad: LCA chair: "I sense an overwhelming will in the room to forward the document. So decided."

tcktcktck: Brasil: acepta el documento!!

AlexMStark: LCA text accepted to cheers and applause!!!! On to final plenary.

AlexMStark: Bolivia hasn't quite given up, wants objection stated for the record

tcktcktck: Bolivia: no esta de acuerdo con documento y no hay concenso para su adopción, anotan objeción.

CYJ_COP: ボリビアが反対しているが、議長がコンセンサスと判断。LCAが終わりました。
kate_sheppard: LCA closed ... now, on to the big show.


AlexMStark: cheers to the Swiss delegation for the snacks! Trackers appreciate it

coralmisaki: Mexican presser skedded for 6 a.m. CST. Final passage of U.N. climate between now and then.

kate_sheppard: Parties (ex. Bolivia) are really, really excited that the process is functioning, even if they're not as excited about the content.


AlexMStark: COP/CMP final plenaries open to applause UNFCCC

OneClimate: President: we will adopt historic decisions, process WILL be simple and straightforward

kate_sheppard: Espinosa opening final portion of the meeting, where they will decide on the two texts (Kyoto track and LCA)


AlexMStark: Bolivia has taken the floor in CMP plenary, doesn't accept KP text and says it's "a step backwards"

OneClimate: or in other words... RT @climatebrad: Bolivia is giving the finger to Mexico.

peaksurfer: Bolivia says no consensus (w/o it). COP16 going backwards; pledge and review no subst for Kyoto hard targets.

BoliviaUN: we wish to make headway but can't accept a document without the opportunity to negotiate on that document.

peaksurfer: Bolivia's final card: procedural irregularities.

AlexMStark: Bolivia: "there is no consensus for the approval of this decision"

kate_sheppard: Espinosa: "We've been spending literally years on these.

peaksurfer: Espinosa: Dear Bolivia, with due respect, we have all been spending years, not days or weeks, considering this document.
peaksurfer: COP16 APPROVED!

kate_sheppard: Espinosa: These will be listed as Cancun Agreement, "a new era in international cooperation on climate change."

peaksurfer: Applause continues

kate_sheppard: Solon arguing against adoption of the KP over their objection. "Today it is Bolivia, tomorrow it could be any other country.

esperanzagarcia: Bolivia keeping the translator busy. 3 AM.

climatebrad: COP16 president: "I do note your position, and if there is no other opinion, this text is approved." Roar of applause.

DougLain: I think I like twitter now.

artnotpolicy: the rule of consensus does not mean unanimity nor one delegation being able to impose a veto - another round of applause

nataliebrook: Espinosa: Bolivia cannot act to veto an agreement that has been achieved with so much effort and respect

NastasyaTay: Espinosa: Consensus does not mean unanimity. One party does not have the right to veto a decision everyone has worked hard to reach.

peaksurfer: applause resumes

kate_sheppard: Espinosa: "The decision of the conference has been duly adopted."

NastasyaTay: Espinosa suspends the discussion around the Kyoto Protocol and opens the official COP16 (the bit involving the bigger plan).

OneClimate: RT @BoliviaUN: we came to Cancun with proposals by an historic Peoples conference @oneclimate covered. None adopted

peaksurfer: @OneClimate Actually there is a fair amount of the Cochabamba Declaration buried in the 37 page doc adopted. Read it& see if U agree.

nataliebrook: Bolivia requesting procedure for consensus to be followed

BoliviaUN: this is the democratic right we're requesting.. we request you to respect the formal mechanisms for agreements of the UN

OneClimate: USA wading into the argument between @BoliviaUN and Mexican Presidency at COP16

CYDcancunCOP16: US says UNFCCC has never formally adopted decision-making rules, and "general agreement" is what they've been working under anyway?

OneClimate: LIVE: showdown between Bolivia and... well, pretty much the rest of the world at the moment

peaksurfer: T Stern gives lesson on consensus? Whodathunk.

kate_sheppard: Espinosa to Bolivia: "ask you to kindly not delay the work of the parties."

artnotpolicy: Pres: Bolivia doors been open to every meeting, i am unhappy members of ur delgation decided to exclude uselves

OneClimate: Pres Espinosa: Bolivia, sorry, but adopted

peaksurfer: goooaaaalllllll!

OneClimate: Mega drama in Cancun - deal pushed through despite Bolivia's very very vocal objections

peaksurfer: Calderon steps to podium

wwwfoecouk: Outcome of cancun climate talks weak and ineffective, but a small and fragile lifeline

wwf_media: Cancun negotiators shake off ghosts of Copenhagen climate talks, back proposals

4:00 am 
peaksurfer: Calderon: Inertia of mistrust led to paralysis and inaction. Refound hope today.

bryanrwalsh: Spare a thought for the Danes-the shock of Copenhagen likely had to happen before Cancun agreement could

peaksurfer Calderon: Given the gravity of the problem ... we are enabled to act, and act straight away.

david_turnbull: adopts Cancun Agreements. Important steps, faith restored but lots more to be done. We live to fight another day. 

I posted that and went to sleep 6 hours ago, at 4:15 am. Here is some commentary that came in while I was 10-7:

Alex Stark, tcktcktck: Liveblogging: Last day of the Cancun Climate Change Conference (with photos)

Message of Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico, regarding the newly adopted Agreements of Cancun (video of closing statement to the COP)

Cancun, Mexico (CNN) -- Delegates at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, approved an agreement early Saturday morning despite objections from Bolivia, whose government claimed rich nations "bullied and cajoled" other countries into accepting a deal on their terms.

Protesting the overrule of its country's vote, Bolivia's Foreign Ministry called the Cancun text "hollow" and ineffective in a written statement.

"Its cost will be measured in human lives. History will judge harshly," the statement said, adding that developing nations will face the worst consequences of climate change.

USA Delegation Press Conference at 5:30 am (video) "Very good, from our point of view."

Brad Johnson, in a Wonk Room cross-post at Climate Progress: The Cancun Compacts — Nations of world choose hope in face of climate crisis:

The first lesson of the Cancun talks is that the governments of the world can in fact work together on global warming, even though decoupling civilization from greenhouse pollution is a herculean task. However, the second lesson is that their leadership only gets humanity so far. Only the full mobilization of the present generation can overcome the institutional barriers to change and protect our fragile civilization from the raging climate system our pollution has created. The Cancun compact has restored hope around the world, but now the actual work has to begin.

Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones: Cancun Climate Breakthrough — It's Not Perfect, But It's a Deal

The debate over the future of the Kyoto Protocol—which legally binds industrialized countries to reduce emissions—is the major lingering question. The United States, of course, famously failed to sign on to Kyoto. Japan and Russia have balked at a second commitment period for the 13-year-old protocol, while developing countries have said that allowing the agreement to expires is a deal-breaker for their ongoing participation in broader climate negotiations. The fate of Kyoto wasn't resolved in Cancun. "The biggest hole in the Cancun agreement is its failure to permanently resolve the Kyoto conflict. To be fair, that would have been an impossible task this year," said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But Kyoto will come back as a front burner issue next year in Durban, and it will be impossible to avoid it again."

It's not clear, said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute in Boston, whether that one-year delay on a decision will serve as "a lifeline or a noose" for Kyoto.

US envoy Stern skirted the question of the question of whether the new agreement is heading toward a legally binding form anytime soon. "The day will come when there is a legal agreement, but we're not going to hang everything up on that," Stern told reporters.

"We should not see this Cancun conference as an end. We should see it rather as a beginning," said Mexico's Espinosa. "The text we have before us really seems to be the best we could achieve at this point in a long process."

The Guardian (London, unattributed):

More reaction to the deal from environmentalists, who note that while it was a step in the right direction it falls short of the action required to curb global warning.

Wendel Trio of Greenpeace said: "Cancun may have saved the process but it did not yet save the climate." Alden Meyer, of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that it "wasn't enough to save the climate. But he added that the deal "did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made."

3.03pm: We're closing the liveblog now. But there'll be more coverage of the deal in tomorrow's Observer.

In the meantime, here's a recap of the main points of the agreement:

•All countries to cut emissions

•Payments for countries who avoid deforestation and conserve nature

•Finance deal to provide $30bn for developing countries to adapt to climate change now, and potentially up to $100bn later.

•A new UN climate fund to be run mostly by developing countries

•Easier transfer of low carbon technology and expertise to poor countries

•China, the US and other major emitters to have their economies inspected

•Scientific review of progress after five years

Suzanne Goldenberg (quoted in The Guardian):

    I've heard a lot of comment this morning that the deal is a big win for the US, which came to Cancun with nothing to offer – given that Obama is not going to be able to deliver anything substantial on climate for at least the next two years.

    As Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, indicated at his press conference, Cancun delivers on two important matters.

    Firstly, it solidifies the idea that emerged at Copenhagen that emerging economies like India and China will eventually be legally required to cut their emissions – like the historic big emitters.

    "What we did this year is bring a lot of substance into that agreement," Stern said. "Ideas that were first of just skeletal last year and that weren't approved are now approved and were elaborated on. That is the core of what we see as a significant step forward."

Brad Johnson again at Climate Progress: Calderon on climate talks: “As we’re squabbling, the plane is going down.”

Calderon: "Sometimes I think in this respect we fail to understand that we’re all passengers in the same vessel, in the same aircraft, or the same vehicle. Our aircraft has now seen the disappearance of the pilot. Something happened in the cabin. And all the passengers are responsible for the aircraft, and we’re squabbling about these matters. Whether the guilt lies with those in the tourist class or those sitting up front in first class and the plane continues to go down. It’s as if we were in a truck on a winding road and the driver has had a heart attack, and we’re all on the edge of hitting a tree, going over into a ravine, squabbling again. I think, friends, somebody has to take control of the aircraft or put on the brakes.

"Taking control of the truck, taking the rudder, and starting to apply the brakes isn’t the only problem. We don’t know which curve we’re going to crash in. We need to get back the controls which we lost a long time ago. Let us take that step. Let us be practical where we can be practical — which implies not resignation or renunciation with respect to the fact that this is the only world we’ve got. The island states and everyone’s countries should last reasonably and should be fit for living in forever. This is the target. But today let us act. I don’t think that radical pretexts or all-or-nothing postures should provide a proper excuse for those who don’t want to cooperate to spend another year fighting and squabbling among the passengers among that single truck, that single bus, that single aircraft which is on the point of crashing. We need to get control back over the vessel."

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.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Can Cancún Can-Do?

Last year in Copenhagen we were among a very few UN outsiders daily blogging from inside the climate summit and we went to great lengths to be relatively punctual and reliable in our reporting. This year, in contrast, there are scads of bloggers — an entire “bloggers loft” at the Cancun Messe site devoted to video bloggers (vloggers).

Just to read the feeds from all the tweeters here you would need multiple heads. So we are off the hook this year. Whew! Why spend time wading through security and trying to parse all the acronyms when you can be in a turquoise sea looking up at seagulls?

Yesterday we attended the Pew Center/Government of Mexico forum on Communicating Climate Change and got to knock elbows at the chow line with climate celebrities. FCCC organizer Simon Anholt gave the equivalent of a TED talk to close the morning session and IPCC nobelist Rajendra Pachauri gave the luncheon keynote. Ozone hole discoverer Mario Molino, No-Impact-Man Colin Beavan, and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa were among the afternoon line-up. While Anholt really got people’s juices flowing, Espinosa’s rousing stand-up slayed. 

You don’t need to take a survey, as the Pew Center and Yale did, to know there is an enormous and growing gap in the public appreciation of climate change. Awareness of the climate is actually higher in China and India than it is in the United States and Mexico, but awareness does not mean understanding. While more than 40% of people in the US think climate change is serious (down from more than 50% five years ago), 97% of the 600 million Chinese who know about climate change feel it is no threat. Similar numbers can be found in India. This takes Fox News and the Koch brothers off the hook. The US is feeling less dumb already.

As Simon Anholt said, climate change, put as simply as possible, is the impact of having 7 billion people living at the highest level of resource consumption the world has ever seen. In many ways, that is a mark of the success of the United Nations, and of the international aid and development work of many agencies and individuals over the past 50 years. And not surprisingly, many of the stakeholders one finds roaming the halls at a UN event have the expectation that “sustainable development” mandate can and should continue. Most, if not all, would even go so far as to say it must continue. And so we drift, by Millennial Development Goals and Clean Development Mechanisms, towards unparalleled catastrophe. 

Another point made by Anholt is that governments care a lot about their reputations. Sweden has a great reputation and finds it easy to get credit, enter markets, attract tourists and so forth. Mexico, by contrast, has a serious image problem about safety. Its drug cartels, some trained and equipped in the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia, are now more powerful than its government, and certainly more wealthy and with better long-term prospects. Such insecurity makes it much harder for Mexico to attract investors, credit and tourists, although it is the drug money that likely built the luxury resorts we are shuttling between. These resorts have more than one kind of laundry to do.

Anholt, a Planetary Emergency Technician who parachutes in to hot spots to advocate rescue remedies where others have failed (his business card bears only his name), said that countries know that they need a good image to have success, and so they waste millions of tax dollars on gawd-awful propaganda, not noticing that in the information age it has gotten harder to buy a good reputation. Sweden’s message is that you may have to actually do something good, like give to the poor, or save the environment. Many companies are starting to get this. Countries will eventually have to. Mr. Calderon’s Mayan Riviera windmill is a poignant case of trying to appear greener than you actually are, but at least it actually works. The first time we saw it we thought it was being turned by motors, entirely for show.

So that’s the formula. If a country wants to do business it must be admired. In order to be admired it must do good. This is a conundrum for many governments, not the least the USA, whose reputation took a huge hit from the Bush-Cheney torture-and-mayhem brand. It briefly revived with the Shepard Ferry “Hope” poster but that has now tarnished with the Obama torture-mayhem-and-cover-up re-brand, the Obama Security State (OSS) that imprisons whistleblowers, and the recent right wing election coup. A Pew survey found that of 22 US Senate challengers in the last election, 20 did not trust climate scientists. Given this display of Tweetle-dee and Tweetle-dumber on the world stage, USA’s credit and confidence reservoirs are drying up, globally, and the Cancun talks are a very clear indication of that. A US citizen attending these meetings feels much like a Japanese citizen attending a screening of The Cove. An icebreaker at parties is to find a shared interest in Michael Moore.

The problem is not confined to a few bad countries, however. We live in an era of borderless problems. As Simon Anholt told the forum, one thing our problems share is that they are all symptoms of a lack of any sane global governance. We haven’t attained the next stage of our evolution: species self-awareness. We are still fragmented and competing nation-states and soul-less corporations. The UN is in 0.9 beta. But, and we keep saying this whenever we get stuck in a long queue for a shuttle bus, as bug-prone as it is, its the only game in town.

After Copenhagen public opinion towards the UN, and government in general, entered a new crisis of confidence. The Wikileaks phenomenon is just another symptom of that. Wilkileaks’ popularity (not to mention its revelations) demonstrates that our governments are incompetent at best, corrupt and greedy at worst, and people now get that. That new branding is being seared into our common psyche. What Karl Rove couldn’t accomplish, Hillary Clinton is driving home.

As we begin the chaotic Anthopocene Epoch, the public is beginning to understand that no one is in charge and we are all aboard a burning ocean liner. Are there evacuation plans? A fire brigade? Any plan at all? Do we have a string quartet to play “Nearer My God to Thee?”
Rajendra Pachauri told the audience that the only superpower today is public opinion. We can take that a step farther and say people’s perceptions are based on patterns of development that begin while they are still in the womb, are strongly embedded by cultural experiences, and continue along driven by that inertia even in the face of strong evidence that the accepted norms of their parents no longer obtain. We are creatures of habit. The big picture – that there are 7 billion of us consuming resources at unsustainable rates, and that both the number of us and our rate of consumption are increasing, not diminishing — is an intractable dilemma simply because opinion about it is fixed and non-negotiable.
Jennifer Scott, Global Head of Strategy and Planning, Ogilvy & Mather, outlined a survey of more than 500 participants at COP-16. The study found that 56% believe that there has already been irreversible damage to the planet, and another 27% believe that such damage is coming within 10 years. Nearly 90 percent believe that the time to act is right now, but only 33% think the talks are headed towards resolution (29% developed world respondents, 38% developing). A full 83% believe response will only come once countries experience the consequences in the full 3D surround sound of real time. Appearances to peers matters — 64% believe the unwillingness to risk economic or political damage at home is the greatest barrier to reaching an agreement. Only 20%  think public apathy is due to skepticism in the science, although 58% say the public has only very limited understanding of the issues. Scientists are trusted by 66%, journalists by only 24% (and probably those respondents were the journalists). Still, 76% rank mainstream media as the best vehicle for conveying the message, and human interest stories as the most effective way (65%).

That last point was driven home by “No Impact Man” Colin Beaven, who put up two images, side-by-side, one of climbing stairs with a child on his shoulders and the other of a MEGO chart. “Which of these images is more likely to draw your attention?” he asked.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Project on Climate Change at Yale University, said that 66% of people surveyed in 150 countries trust scientists and experts, but less than half  trust global organizations like the UN (42%), or public figures and activists (41%). “Just between China and India we are talking about 2 billion people who know nothing about climate change,” he said, and added that this is very unfortunate because these are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The sad thing, and Pachauri and many others alluded to this, is that our species’ suicidal, geocidal meander toward “sustainable development” is not even going where people think it is going. The objective is happiness, and every study shows that happiness is increased by factors having nothing to do with shopping in WalMart or the Gap; turning dolphins and salmon into catfood, or bling. Consumption doesn’t work.
The Onion ran a fake story yesterday with the headline “Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.”  The irony is that may be true. People want jobs that maintain their status quo. They want governments that will give them whatever they consider their patrimony or natural right to consume. Those are impossible career goals, but public opinion, the world’s only superpower, has yet to come to grips with it. Demands for the impossible are clashing with what is possible, as in the case of a family whose breadwinners are out of work, the house has been foreclosed, social welfare provides for neither the children’s food nor the grandparents’ medical needs and they so they just decide to pack up and go to Disney World.
And the irony is that it is all so unnecessary because the low-energy, low-carbon, low-impact path is so much more fun, healthier, and more fulfilling than the dead-end wage slavery it could be replacing before it is all too late. After all, many good studies in various countries already show profitable means to achieve 40% aggregate reductions from 1990 levels for 2020. Some UN observers, like Zero Carbon Britain, Climate Action Network and European Climate Foundation, have shown how we can transition to a zero carbon economy for developed countries by 2050. Dubious technologies like clean coal and nuclear can be pursued by countries inviting their own financial ruin, but most would likely prefer to adopt clean renewables targets like China’s.
Speaking in Spanish, Patricia Espinoza said that while it is the usual thing to talk about climate solutions that involve energy production or transportation, and numeric limits, that few people yet see the whole picture. When we talk about climate change we are really talking about changing everything. She listed some of the things that people need to think about, like the size of their house and car, where their food comes from, how many children they have, and what it would be like if not just the business they were in was closed, but that entire industrial sector was phased out. Big problems require big thinking, she told the conference, and we are still thinking much too small.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cimientos de Cancún

The Cancún Climate Summit - Opening Day Coverage  

Cancún, México, November 30. Uniformly, expectations are being downplayed for any concrete action to be achieved here, which makes one only wonder, so why are 15,000 people converging on Cancún to work on a treaty to prevent catastrophic climate change?

Michael Jacobs, one of UKPM Gordon Brown's climate change advisers, told a London newspaper “Let's get the bad news out of the way first – there isn't going to be a legally binding global climate treaty for at least three years.” That seems the consensus view here.

Which made it all the more interesting that on one wall of Cancún Messe are these charts of delegates’ and observers’ carbon footprints for all of the Climate COPs since the Earth Charter was translated into the big three frameworks for action (the convention on climate change, the convention on biodiversity and the convention on desertification) — 17 years ago.

If people are trying to save the planet from the runaway carbon cycle, is having meetings in places that maximize our carbon footprint the best way to do that?
Cancún is particularly poignant as COP sites go, because it is such a perfect encapsulation of the mental disconnect between the scale of the challenge and what will be actually required. We can either impose that requirement on ourselves by legally-binding treaty or it will be imposed on us involuntarily by Newtonian physics. Nature bats last.

A mere forty years ago this area had been a 
string of small fishing villages working the seemingly inexaustible reef ecosystems for a daily catch, and beyond the beach, dense rainforest and tiny, remote Mayan settlements all the way to Mérida, the colonial capital of New Spain.

México decided to invest its one-time bonanza of petrodollars — now in rapid decline, not to say freefall — in tourism. In that 40 years it went from exporting food to the world to becoming a net importer of its most important staples — rice, beans and corn. Instead of selling huaraches and jalapeños, it sold turquoise beaches, Jose Cuervo tequila, and Corona. México cut a 50-mile swath of mangroves to erect luxury resort hotels and tethered itself to multi-thousand-mile jet flights from London, Paris and Atlanta. Now that peak oil has arrived, it is a good day to die.
  Climate change will heal the sore that Cancún has scratched, because all of this will soon enough be under the Caribbean Sea. It was there recently before, between just the last two ice ages, when a 1-degree C increase covered a large part of this flat, low-lying Yucatán Peninsula with ocean. This will happen again, in the lifetime of many of the delegates here. Perhaps that is why they are partying like its 1999.

The center of the conference is in the Hotel Moon Palace, with 2,457 rooms fetching some $750 per night. Each room comes with a double-occupancy Jacuzzi and a sea view, liquor dispenser with top shelf brands of whisky, rum, tequila and vodka, and LCD TV with Fox News locked in. There are three Jack Nicklaus golf courses and spas and a half-dozen upscale restaurants with dinner buffets starting at $50 if you didn’t book the all-inclusive. You can swim to two of the restaurants (and three beach bars) by either the ocean or the 220-meter chlorine river that winds through the connecting patios by the beach. With their rooms comp’d by their governments, delegates can unwind with a hot stone and aloe massage by the pool, balneotherapy in one of 6 private suites, or facials and body scrubs in 20 spa rooms.

If mingling with lower classes is not for you, the Moon Palace has 50 Presidential Suites where everything can be brought to you by skilled professionals.

Last Saturday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon dedicated the State’s first commercial-scale wind turbine, announcing that it will provide “part” of the hotel’s electricity and save carbon for the conference. Given that each double Jacuzzi generates 35 times more carbon dioxide than an ordinary bath and 80 times more than a five-minute shower, we’re guessing that the wind will only make a very small contribution even to México’s public relations.

The Climate Action Network voted Canada its first Cancún Fossil of the Day Award for a year of climate inaction, but the New Face of Moet Champagne, Canadian Scarlett Johansson, has gotten into the Jacuzzi with Tcktcktck and Oxfam. The actress has signed an open letter as an Oxfam Global Ambassador “to call on international negotiators to protect the world's poor from climate catastrophe.” Leonardo DiCaprio, another respected climate change celebrity, has received praise from environmental groups for flying on commercial airlines rather than by private jet. In fairness, earlier this week he donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund to protect wild tigers around the world. They don’t fly by private jet either.
Margarita C. de Salinas

So it should come as no surprise that at the official reception dinner, where all the music was provided by military bands, the food was catered
by Margarita Carrillo de Salinas, owner and executive chef of Don Emiliano in Cabo San Lucas, Casa México in Mexico City and La Colina in Tokyo. Chef Margarita is the leader of the Slow Food movement in Baja and recently accepted a UN award on behalf of México for its “World Heritage” cuisine. It was lovely to see La Maestra getting down with the Mariachis and dancing until after midnight with delegates and NGOs.

In all of this, there is an abiding sense of dancing on a grave. The trouble is, it is our grave. All of ours. There is no joy in that, not really. There is only a profound disconnect.

Global Ecovillage Network delegates Hector Reyes and Maria Ros

Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) terminology translated by Climate Action Network (CAN):

Forest management: Logging.
Sustainable forest management: Mostly logging.
All of the music at the President's reception were Military Bands.
Harvesting: Logging.
Temporarily destocked: Logged (usually logged natural forest).
Age class structure: Age of forest.
Wrong age class structure: Old trees = needs logging.
Conversion: Logging a natural, carbon and biodiversity-rich forest and replacing it with a low carbon, low biodiversity forest with no penalty (see also temporarily destocked, empty forest, displaced local and indigenous people and Australia).
Unique national circumstances: Need to log (often thought just to apply to New Zealand but can apply to any country wanting to log).
Forward looking baseline: A means of hiding logging emissions (see also Canada and others).
Bar with a band to zero: A means of hiding logging emissions (see also Russia).
Incentive: Not penalizing logging emissions and/or allowing them to be hidden, as in ‘give us an incentive (logging loophole) and we will take on a more ambitious  target’
Voluntary: If you might have a high emission from logging then you can opt not to tell anyone.  Notable as being the only term that means roughly the same in English.  (See also ‘not electing for forest management’ and Austria.)
Cap: Term used by the G77 and China but not understood by Annex I.
Harvested wood products: The logging industry’s little joke.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Cancun Transnarrative

"The hopeful transnarrative of 'la Cumbre de las Naciones Unidas sobre Cambio Climático' in Cancún is one of metamorphosis."

Tomorrow the United Nations begins its 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the Earth Charter in Rio in 1992 and the 6th Meeting of the Parties (CMP-6) to the Kyoto Protocol. It is also the 33rd session of the subsidiary bodies for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and for Implementation (SBI), the 15th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments (AWG-KP), the 13th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Cooperative Actions (AWG-LCA) and the World Business Summit, a conference that convenes annually during the UN climate talks to either accelerate economic solutions to climate change or pretend that that is what they are doing when they are actually committing geocide.

On 10/10/10 Egyptians joined with this prayer.

Last year, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, the USA, which has yet to ratify any climate treaties and should not be here in any capacity other than observer, came with a lame, lowball proposal of a strictly voluntary, symbolic pledge system, quickly derailing a meeting that was actually close to signing into international law several important agreements.

This year, many are more wary. Some say the US needs to be kept out of the tent while more serious negotiators complete their work. An important new study from the United Nations Environmental Programme, The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2°C or 1.5°C?, concludes that the US pledge system will not reverse climate change, even if it were universally adopted. UN Undersecretary-General Achim Steiner said in his introduction to the report, “If no clear rules are set in the negotiations, emissions could be around 53 Gt of CO2  equivalent in 2020 — not that different from business as usual — so the rules set in the negotiations clearly matter.  … emissions need to be around 44 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2020 to have a likely chance of pegging temperature [increase] to 2°C or less.” 

People like to be assured that someone is minding the store, even if they aren’t. So when these high-level delegations get together for the 16th time, or the 33rd time, or whatever, there is some sense of order in the world, even if it seems to keep getting hotter. On the eve of this year’s summit, stock markets surged in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the USA. The Hang Seng broke 25000, the Mexican IPC broke 35000, and even the Dow broke above its support levels. This shows a renewed confidence in the future, even if it also shows more than a small amount of ignorance of the actual situation in the world. More sober assessments came this month from a report from the University of California Santa Barbara, “Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis” and a more enticeingly captioned study by
Feasta: The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability called Fleeing Vesuvius.

Brad Johnson, reporting for Climate Progress,  says that, psychologically, we humans like a happy ending for our stories. As the behavioral researcher Melvyn Lerner first described in 1965, people need to believe in “a just world” — i.e., “good things happen to good people.” A recent study that placed these predispositions into the climate context concluded that those who have a low belief in a just world respond well to a message of dire scientific threat. Those who have a high belief in a just world respond to a hopeless conclusion with skepticism and a hopeful conclusion with acceptance. 

The researchers showed their subjects two public service announcements from 2007 that make a strong emotional appeal, one with a train accelerating toward a child and the other with children “ticking.”  Subjects responded differently, depending on the tag line and their personal need for justice.

Johnson concludes, “In short, the researchers found that the approach taken by leading climate messengers such as Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), Van Jones (The Green Collar Economy), and Bill McKibben ( of combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness should be successful.”

The hopeful transnarrative can be found in UN Peace Ambassador Wangari Maathai’s post to The Guardian on November 26.

“It is true that no delegate leaves a conference with a perfect document, but last year in Copenhagen we caught a glimpse of the potential we have if we tackle this global crisis together. For the first time, 115 countries recognized the scientific case for restricting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C. For the first time ever, all the major emitters of the world accepted their moral responsibility to reduce their emissions and committed to build trust and transparency. And for the first time ever, we set out our interconnectedness, with developed countries offering to help the poorest countries to protect their people from climate change and to find a path to low-carbon sustainable development.”

There is a distinction to be found, however, between solution-oriented hopefulness and pie-in-the-sky narratives that continue us all down a path to ruin. Regrettably, many in the South still cling to a “developed” versus “developing” dichotomy that is both out of step with new financial arrangements (wherein the BASIC group of Brazil, South Africa, China and India have supplanted the flailing empires of Europe, Japan and North America) and the notion that somehow every increasingly populous country can not only stave off starvation when fossil fuels are gone but somehow grow just as caustic to the environment as USAnians. We can sample this right here in México with a simple excursion to a Cancún shopping mall.

Another false narrative, and one that regularly makes the rounds in Washington, is that market-based solutions – the green business model — can solve the problem of climate change. Market-based mechanisms are highly unlikely to reduce emissions, especially in the emerging economies. Market incentives can stimulate rapid adoption of better practices, but they are meaningless and unworkable in the absence of a firm and enforceable emissions cap.

The symbol México has chosen for the conference is the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It is an interesting choice, because the Monarch is cold-sensitive and the population west of the Rockies migrates to Southern California each winter while the population east of the Rockies migrates to Michoacán, México. It takes several generations of butterflies to complete the annual migration, following the progress of  milkweed emergence northward, and for each generation a metamorphosis is required.

The butterflies mate and lay eggs, and caterpillars emerge from and consume the egg cases, feed on milkweed, and make cardenolides, a type of cardiac glycoside that makes them too bitter for birds to want. After 2 weeks of gorging on greenery, the caterpillar spins a silk pad on a leaf and hangs from this pad by its last pair of prolegs. It hangs upside down in the shape of a 'J', and then molts, leaving itself encased in a leaf-like green exoskeleton. Hormonal changes occur that are so unusual that the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the new cells, trying to defend itself. Eventually the old form loses and is turned into an enzyme soup, leading to the development of a transparent butterfly chrysalis that, a day before emergence, darkens to a butterfly’s body with orange and black wings.

The hopeful transnarrative of “la Cumbre de las Naciones Unidas sobre Cambio Climático” in Cancún is one of metamorphosis. From a messy process of reconciling the interests of collapsing empires (struggling to exact tribute from wayward colonies by military and economic brutality) with the pre-doomed aspirations of the oppressed for consumerist empires of their own, to some rational scheme for going forward for another year, and maybe planting a few trees along the way.

Who knows? Maybe a butterfly will emerge.

From The Earth Charter

Earth, Our Home

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life's evolution. The resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all peoples. The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.

The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.


In order to build a sustainable global community, the nations of the world must renew their commitment to the United Nations, fulfill their obligations under existing international agreements, and support the implementation of Earth Charter principles with an international legally binding instrument on environment and development.

Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


In a recent post to Resource Insights, energy analyst Kurt Cobb wrote:
Every culture lives by its narratives. And, these narratives come to us not just in the form of novels, plays, movies and television shows. They also come in the form of news stories, ideology, religious doctrine, theories that are social, political and scientific, and myriad other works which fall under the category of nonfiction. Over time these narratives become outmoded, and new ones emerge, or at least, the old ones are reworked in light of new circumstances.

Cobb would doubtless be the first to tell us that narratives sometimes outlive their host reality. In recent posts we have been calling these zombie myths, but maybe someone will come up with a better term.

Many zombie myths have outlived any helpfulness and are now consuming their host societies. You can see this in the way we remove mountains to find coal, send children to die in conflicts that do nothing to promote security, provide reliable energy, or protect family values anywhere. Instead, we bankrupt our monetary systems, medical systems, educational systems and political integrity in pursuit of utterly unobtainable nonsense. Zombie myths are staggeringly stupid and ruthlessly destructive.

A good example of the destructiveness of our myths was provided by Rita Rubin last week in USA Today. The paper reported that 15000 Medicare patients die each month from slipshod care experienced in US hospitals. Given the modern journalism standard epitomized by USA Today, it would be helpful to bracket that number with a large error band to the higher side. The real death toll could be an order of magnitude larger. Last year a federal study estimated that in October 2008, 314,000 Medicare hospital patients were harmed by the care they received, just in that one month. Preventable causes of death included bed sores, infections, and internal bleeding from blood-thinning drugs, among other abuses.

Medicare is the government health program for people 65 and older. If you were to ask a US Congressman if Medicare might be improved, such as by using a tax-financed health approach of the type used in most other “rich” countries, the likely response would be that “America has the best health care system in the world.” 

That is a zombie myth. Expecting that a Congressman would change something that might affect the bottom line of a health insurance corporation in any direction other than to make it more profits would be another zombie myth. Congressional representatives are elected by, and controlled by, health insurance corporations and Big Pharma. They can ignore the hundreds of thousands of bodies stacking up outside their offices because they are in the thrall of zombie myths. When you look at them like they are crazy, they wonder if you are crazy.

Something we have recently come to recognize is that between the zombie myth and a new normal there may lie a realm of transitional or transformative narratives, an amphibian meme that lives partly in the past and partly in the present. While we may resent being forced to live within a construct that no longer serves, we may find some temporary shelter under a transnarrative.

Michael Ruppert’s Collapse Net, Nicole Foss’s Automatic Earth, and Matt Savinar’s Life After The Oil Crash throw reality in your face. After a while, you get the drift. We have many of these sites listed in the column just to the right, under Usual Haunts and Fellow Ne'er-do-wells.

The transnarrative is a more subtle beast, and two examples are Cobb’s novel, Prelude, and James Howard Kunstler’s excellent World Made By Hand series. With these works, a Cassandra author who dwells in present reality and can easily see what is about to transpire imparts his wisdom by way of allegory — a light tale with heavier meaning. Our own transnarratives, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook and The Biochar Solution, are crude by comparison, forcing people to shift gears too quickly, maybe losing a few teeth in the process.

In the USA, where the fog of corrupted information lies thick on the ground, a drugged and distracted public still wants its gasoline, home heating oil, jet fuel, 3000-mile potato chips, and cheap. If you try to tell it that all that comes at the cost of civilian deaths in Af-Pak, torture chambers at black sites, dead pelicans in Louisiana, invasive searches at airports, mountaintop removal and gas fracking in Appalachia, or Earth’s climate going to Hades in a Hummer, they cover their ears and chant “nananananaIcanthearyounananana.”

In these circumstances, a transnarrative can be just the thing. Hence, films like The Day After Tomorrow, Wall-E and Book of Eli. Even our fascination with zombies and vampires provides a hint of Zeitgeist — that we dwell in the calm before a storm, and that what is coming will be far more unpleasant, not to say brutal, for a good long while.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Slouching towards Cancun

In the run-up to the Seventh Biennial Workshop on Advances in Energy Studies in Barcelona, 19-21 October, the organizers put out this statement as context:
Many people seem to believe that it is possible to have a rapid transition to a "low carbon economy," based on a totally different pattern of production of energy carriers (using different primary energy sources) and a totally different pattern of consumption of energy carriers, while still guaranteeing the same set of end uses. 
The underlying presumption is that this is achievable by just signing a few international agreements (e.g. 80% reduction of CO2 emissions in 40 years). Very few people seem to realize that changing the metabolic pattern of a complex dissipative system is very difficult, if not impossible. In metabolic systems, the very pattern of dissipation (the use of a given set of energy carriers to serve a given set of operating purposes) coincides with the very identity of the system (its components, characteristics and ways of doing things). This implies that we must expect all kinds of problems if we try to change the characteristics of the production and consumption of energy in modern societies: problems generated by the inertia of complex systems, which tend to resist structural change.
In recent weeks we have been in discussions with other members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs, or “civil sector major groups” in UN parlance) as part of the run-up to the Cancun climate conference that starts just 2 weeks from now. Because of the huge outpouring of non-profit energy, money and effort at Copenhagen last year, and the subsequent meltdown of the Copenhagen round, the approach to this year’s COP (Conference of Parties to the Framework Climate Convention) has been like a drunk waking up with a really bad hangover. A hot shower and several carafes of coffee later, many are really wondering if we want to go back into the bar again tonight.

There is fresh meat in Cancun, including some inexperienced groups still enamored of the vision of a low carbon future that might be achieved just by signing a few international agreements, eating fewer animals, driving hybrid cars and changing light bulbs.

To the veterans, who are less like drunks and more like near-suicidal PTSD sufferers, a dramatic reduction of energy consumption in a complex society seems quite unlikely, absent some catastrophic event, which in their darker moments some have even begun to hope for. Even Peak Oil is moving too slowly, with shale gas and biofuels propping up near-term supplies. We need a supervolcano.

In Copenhagen, the NGOs had displays and presentation rooms right at the Bella Center, the Ground Zero of the UN meeting. That ended the snowy December day Obama arrived, when, suddenly, NGOs were rationed passes, and then thrown out into the cold, quite literally. This year the host country is starting at the point of last year’s exclusion, dividing the delegate deliberations at the Moon Palace Hotel from the Civil Sector Sideshow at the Cancun Messe, 5 miles away. KlimaForum10, an off-site alternative congress continuing from this past April’s World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia, is even farther away, across impassible swamps and pedestrian-inadvisable highways.

The differences between these venues are like the differences between their names. In the Palacio, you have to pass through many layers of security, take off your shoes, empty your water bottle, and show credentials to be scanned every time you cross sectors. Everyone wears suits and ties (although last week the host committee recommended guayaberas or equivalent barongs or dashikis) and if you get too close to a security detail for a Head of State or Oil Minister you can be arrested or machine-gunned by bodyguards. We venture into this lions' den because we want to hear and report what is said, and because there are presentations to the delegates behind these closed doors that do not occur anywhere else.

The KlimaForum, is intended to be more like the Summer of Love, where anything goes. Twenty meeting tents and 2500 campsites are being readied. The poster looks like an ayahuasca rush.

People wear polar bear costumes and no shoes and you can smell incense burning. There is guerrilla theater. Many stands are set up to hand out literature and chatchkas like key rings and water bottles. It is a free speech zone and people create opportunities to share, give powerpoints, or have debates. Klimaforum09 cost more than 125 million dollars, provided mostly by the Danish government. Klimaforum10 asked the Mexican government and the Cancún municipal government to provide the same. Mexico gave space but no money. European funds were frozen to pressure the Mexican government, but at this late date, that hope is pretty forlorn.

The Messe is a halfway house, where you need credentials to get in, but they are easier to get. It is for the Major Groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam and Yale 350. In the Palacio there will be 20,000 to 30,000 diplomats and 10,000 press. In the Messe there will be 10,000-40,000 environmental activists and no press.

Recently George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, despaired for the Cancun talks:
How should we respond to the reality we have tried not to see: that in 18 years of promise and bluster nothing has happened? Environmentalists tend to blame themselves for these failures. Perhaps we should have made people feel better about their lives. Or worse. Perhaps we should have done more to foster hope. Or despair. Perhaps we were too fixated on grand visions. Or techno-fixes. Perhaps we got too close to business. Or not close enough. The truth is that there is not and never was a strategy certain of success, as the powers ranged against us have always been stronger than we are.
Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don't want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power - acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won't. They weren't ever going to do so. So what do we do now?
I don't know. These failures have exposed not only familiar political problems, but deep-rooted human weakness. All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialize and start facing a political reality we've sought to avoid.
For the past 300 years the massive production and consumption of potent, once-in-history, energy sources spawned gigantic infrastructures that locked in our contemporary pattern of meeting daily human needs from Earth’s bounty in ways that are both wasteful and out of balance. The flush of superhuman energy supplanted the old narrative for individual and family relationships to the natural world with a modern, generic one that saw nature as a machine that could be revved up to produce infinitely more.

The new world view also enshrined the political/military power structure, as witnessed by recent elections in the USA. Political and military power seeks only to continue itself, by any expediency, no matter how short-sighted. Student protests over tuition increases and most labor union agendas fall into this same expediency. Sooner or later, they are all as deer, frozen in the headlight of an approaching freight train. Nothing in their cultural conditioning or centuries of military history has prepared them for this moment. Nature is no machine, and she is angry when revved up.

Cheap oil and coal, along with an anomalously mild and stable climate for 10,000 years, have tricked our economic systems by conflating the consumption and production of goods and services with availability of credit and technological prowess. Shortfalls are met not by rationing and reseeding but by increasing indebtedness or thinking outside the box. We strive to re-inflate national economies by buying, with money that we do not have, goods and services that we do not need, using financial instruments that are complete fictions, in order to sate our addiction to growth. We forget that “economics” and “ecology” share the same root. In Greek, it means “home.”

Cornucopians, including many of the Indian NGOs attending COP-16, see population growth as positive since it enlarges the work supply and the potential for creative innovation. How food for 7 billion people in the world can continue to be supplied at today’s negative Energy Return on Investment of 0.1 (10 calories in for each calorie out) is an inconvenient question.

Neo-Malthusians, including many of the major NGOs today, see population growth as putting unsustainable pressure on resources and the environment, but can’t seem to find a way to discuss this rationally with their Indian, African or Catholic counterparts.

Lough’s 1999 Chart of ERoI
Equally unrealistic are the 10 points emerging from Cochabamba in April that seem utterly detached from best available science and from pragmatic politics. To be detached from pragmatic politics (meaning it can never be accomplished) is not necessarily a bad thing, because politics needs to be pushed and to have something to aim for, so that the compromise leans farther.

But the lack of scientific coordination is troubling. It will not be possible to limit global temperature increase to 1 degree. We are already past that. It may still be possible to limit it to one degree per decade for the remainder of this century, although that will be global average and already we are seeing 2 to 4 degree increases at the high latitudes.

It will also not be possible to reduce emissions by more than 50% for 2017, as some Southern NGOs are calling for. It is possible to reduce emissions from transportation and energy by 50%, but it is far slower and more difficult to reduce emissions from buildings and agriculture. In Copenhagen we were very close to a consensus 50’ by ‘50 deal, and that still seems achievable, albeit probably not in Cancun.

We need to get rid of the rhetoric that employs terms such as "developing countries." In the world to come, the only developing countries will be those that follow the example of Bhutan, and develop qualitative measurement of happiness. In that sense the North is the most undeveloped. The notion that somehow all countries can achieve a higher standard of living by industrialization is a busted paradigm and we need to distance ourselves from it. India and Senegal will never be Sweden. Nor should they want to be.

From Allen, et al., "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions: Towards the trillionth tonne" Nature 458:1163-66; in World Bank Development Report 2010.

Lastly, we need to get beyond the concept of zero emissions. We need to go below zero. Below zero by, say, 2060 could be a KlimaForum goal. Practical approaches like Zero Carbon Britain 2030, if implemented sooner, rather than later, could blaze the trail and shorten the 2060 timetable. Wouldn’t it be great if the ZCB-30 goal could be universally cloned by all States-Parties to the convention at Cancun?

As in Copenhagen, we are attending as part of the Global Ecovillage Network, which has consultative status through the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations. We’ll probably devote a small amount of time each day to visiting the Palacio (where the lines are very long at security checkpoints) and the rest of the time be at the Messe or KlimaForum. The meetings we most want to attend, such as the formal discussions on solutions like tree-planting, biochar or carbon farming, versus ill-conceived non-solutions like geoengineering, nuclear power or clean coal, will be at the Palacio.

Expecting to accomplish something really promising is probably asking too much at this point, but we can still attend as witnesses. Who knows? We might witness something really historic.

Or not.

Previously published Nov 12, 2010 by Culture Change and Energy Bulletin.

This correction was sent to us by Miguel Valencia:

Regarding Klimaforum10, I want to inform you that:

1.- Klimaforum09 cost one million and three hundred thousand euros, 1,300,000.00 euros, mostly paid  by Danish Govt to DGY-Byen company from Copenhagen. The Danish Board (Danish grassroots that organized Klimaforum09) provided about 40% of this. They had to face great opposition from Big Greens.

2.- After many months of negotiations, Mexican govt accepted to follow the example of the Danish Govt. and decided to support al least four political spaces outside UNFCCC, including the smallest: Klimaforum10: this spaces are now: Villa del Cambio Climatico (devoted to Big enterprise); Dialogo Climático-ESMEX ( Big greens and mainstream enviros); La Vía Campesina Space( that dislikes some Big greens and some big mexican social-enviros networks); Klimaforum10 ( grassroots social -local-enviros) So we have received money this week in order to pay the field, tents, baths and other things: 25 % of our budget.

3.- Klimaforum10 logistics has been mostly operated by Nomads United, a group steered by Kareen Kohn, related to the Mexican Ecovillage and Ecoregional groups. Graphics and space logistics are mostly his idea. We have not been able to visit Cancun, as we have no money, so now we have a lot of  work to do as something like 100 self organized activities have been registered in our space and we don't have enough secretariat capacity. So we are overwhelmed 

4.- I will try to organize a seminar on de-growth, a forum on the future of electric services with Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas and if possible another forum on Cities and Climate Disaster. I'm looking for appropriate speakers for all these activities.

Un abrazo




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