Tag Archives: new york times

Climate change refugees and urbanization

bangladeshJoanna Kakissis writes about Banglasdeshi environmental refugees in Environmental Refugees Unable to Return Home:

Natural calamities have plagued humanity for generations. But with the prospect of worsening climate conditions over the next few decades, experts on migration say tens of millions more people in the developing world could be on the move because of disasters.

Rather than seeking a new life elsewhere in a mass international “climate migration,” as some analysts had once predicted, many of these migrants are now expected to move to nearby megacities in their own countries.

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Reflections on COP15

Reporting on the climate meetings in Copenhagen picks out many different meanings from the chaos and limited success of the meeting.  Below are some reports from Canada, the UK, and the USA.

Comments linking to any other good reports on the conference outcome would be fantastic, especially if they are from other countries and raise other points.

Jeffrey Simpson, the Toronto Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist, writes:

Ideally, the leaders who participated in the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen would have agreed to long-term emissions reductions, backed by short-term reduction targets. Apparently, however, even a 50-per-cent overall reduction target for 2050 was too stringent for too many countries and therefore Copenhagen ended without either long-term targets or short-term yardsticks.

Measurable yardsticks would have required hard decisions by many countries whose publics are not ready for strong action such as the United States; by democratic governments such as Canada that do not wish to lead; and by developing countries such as China and India unwilling to acknowledge that although the developed world has created most of the emissions to date, the fast-developing countries will be responsible for a growing share of emissions in the next half-century.

Instead, what seems to have been agreed upon was a process whereby countries will list their targets voluntarily. A long negotiation will follow to try to make these binding and included in an international treaty. The result was better than a complete collapse of the talks, but it left much of the detailed work for long negotiations ahead.

Copenhagen, therefore, was a predictable disappointment. The gaps coming into the talks between and among countries’ positions were too large; the domestic political stakes in some cases were too high; the economic fears too great; the temptation to finger-point too irresistible. …

Finding common ground among them was always going to be supremely difficult, and it remains so in the months, perhaps years, ahead as countries struggle to do better than they managed at Copenhagen, where they avoided the worst but did not achieve the best.

The negotiations did underscore the emergence of the world’s new power structure, since the critical negotiations involved the United States, China, India and Brazil, with the European Union off to one side, and Canada off the stage completely.

It took a major effort by President Barack Obama to save the negotiations; it will take an even larger one for him to persuade his Congress and the U.S. public to do something serious about climate change. But a Canadian could only admire his moral passion for the issue and his determination to lead, in contrast to the Canadian government’s approach that, appropriately enough, earned the country “Fossil of the Year” award by environmental groups at the conference.

In the New York Times, Andrew Revkin and John Broder report:

Many participants also said that the chaos and contentiousness of the talks may signal the end of reliance on a process that for almost two decades had been viewed as the best approach to tackling global warming: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a series of 15 conventions following a 1992 climate summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro.

The process has become unworkable, many said, because it has proved virtually impossible to forge consensus among the disparate blocs of countries fighting over environmental guilt, future costs and who should referee the results.

“The climate treaty process isn’t going to die, but the real work of coordinating international efforts to reduce emissions will primarily occur elsewhere,” said Michael Levi, who has been tracking the diplomatic effort for the Council on Foreign Relations.

That elsewhere will likely be a much smaller group of nations, roughly 30 countries responsible for 90 percent of global warming emissions. It was these nations that Mr. Obama rallied in a series of dramatic encounters on Friday to finally ink a deal that starts a flow of financing for poor countries to adapt to climate change and sets up a system for major economies to monitor and report their greenhouse gas emissions.

This smaller group of nations will meet periodically to tackle a narrower agenda of issues, like technology sharing or the merging of carbon trading markets, without the chaos and posturing of the United Nations process. A version of this already exists in the 17-nation Major Economies Forum, which has been a model of decorum and progress compared with what the world saw unfold at the climate talks.

The deal worked out in Copenhagen is a political agreement forged by major emitters to curb greenhouse gases, to help developing nations build clean-energy economies and to send money flowing to cushion the effects of climate change on vulnerable states. But even if countries live up to their commitments on emissions, a stark gap remains — measured in tens of billions of tons of projected flows of carbon dioxide — between nations’ combined pledges and what would be required to reliably avert the risks of disruptive changes in rainfall and drought, ecosystems and polar ice cover from global warming, scientists say.

An editorial from the UK’s Financial Times states:

One wonders how a conference to conclude two years of detailed negotiations, building on more than a decade of previous talks, could have collapsed into such a shambles. It is as though no preparatory work had been done. Consensus on the most basic issues was lacking. Were countries there to negotiate binding limits on emissions or not? Nobody seemed to know.

From the start, the disarray was total. In this, at least, the attention to detail was impressive. The organisers invited more people to the event than could be accommodated, and were puzzled when they arrived. Delegates queued in the freezing cold for hours, a scene that summed it all up. The organisers had planned a celebration of a grand new global pact – but the party was a disaster and they forgot to bring the agreement.

Governments need to understand, even if they cannot say so, that Copenhagen was worse than useless. If you draw the world’s attention to an event of this kind, you have to deliver, otherwise the political impetus is lost. To declare what everybody knows to be a failure a success is feeble, and makes matters worse. Loss of momentum is now the danger. In future, governments must observe the golden rule of international co-operation: agree first, arrange celebrations and photo opportunities later.

Fiona Harvey, Ed Crooks and Andrew Ward write in the Financial Times:

Developed countries insist that the accord, while imperfect, is nevertheless a significant step. As published, the section intended to show commitments to curb emissions by big economies is blank, but by February it is supposed to have been filled in. If leading economies repeat the offers made in public, the agreement will not be far from the political declaration the UN was looking for.

The real problem with the accord, however, is that it has not been formally accepted by the Copenhagen conference, which means it can easily be sidelined, an impression reinforced by China’s words. That leaves the UN with a further six months of tough and possibly hopeless negotiations to win acceptance, to be followed by the nearly impossible task of turning any such acceptance into a treaty. It also leaves the world without a global framework to tackle climate change.

It is these conclusions, after two weeks of unprecedented scenes, that have led some to question whether the UN, with processes vulnerable to delays, grandstanding and blackmail by special interests, is the forum in which to reach a treaty. There is talk from developed country officials of pressing ahead with a much smaller group of the leading economies, such as the Group of 20, responsible for the majority of global emissions – a “coalition of the willing” for the climate.

Yvo de Boer, the most senior UN climate official, made a strong defence of the UN as he prepared to leave the meeting, saying all countries must be included in making any deal. If it was restricted to the G20, he said, “you wouldn’t have round the table the countries who are in the front line of dealing with [the effects of] climate change but have minuscule economies.

“That’s part of the reason why people went to the trouble of creating the UN: that people wanted to address problems equitably.”

In Time magazine Bryan Walsh writes about lessons of COP15:

Green schism: The Environmental Defense Fund — a U.S. green group that often works with business — praised the Copenhagen Accord as an “important step,” and other mainstream environmental groups had a similarly measured response. But the new group 350.org — which demands extremely sharp and immediate carbon reductions — denounced the deal and protests outside the venue began almost immediately….

It’s going to get harder, and that’s a good thing: In the weeks preceding the summit, world leaders had downgraded expectations for a binding agreement, aiming instead for a broad political agreement while kicking tough decisions such as emission targets down the road. Logically, that should have made the talks at Copenhagen easier. Obviously that’s not what happened, as the summit’s final 48 hours were passed on the brink of collapse. But if Copenhagen was tough, Mexico City will be a lot more so, because there, countries will be tasked with filling in details sketched in the Copenhagen Accord.

Yet the very struggle to reach agreement at Copenhagen, and the tougher talks to come, demonstrate that climate diplomacy has finally come of age. The negotiations at Copenhagen were so contentious because of the very real impact the proposals on the table will have, not only on the environment, but also on national economies. China and the U.S. played hardball — and sent heads of government to do the talking — precisely because they had something to lose. The onset of a kind of climate realpolitik, which eschews hot air for real action, signals is a sign that global climate talks have moved beyond symbolic rhetoric.

Resilience to Earthquakes

In response to the high number of school children killed in school collapses in the recent Sichuan earthquake, Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about the challenges of enhancing resilience – even when the problem and solution are well understood – in his article A Move to Turn Schools From Earthquake Death Traps Into Havens:

… The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.

It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)

Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.

“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”

Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.

In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.

The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.

“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”

Ecological Economics of the Global Food Trade

From the April 26th New York Times, Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World, discusses the complexities of global food trade. Its great efficiency, the hidden subsidies to transport, and the politics of carbon footprint calculations:

Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China to be turned into filets, then shipped back to Norway for sale. Argentine lemons fill supermarket shelves on the Citrus Coast of Spain, as local lemons rot on the ground. Half of Europe’s peas are grown and packaged in Kenya. …

Increasingly efficient global transport networks make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.

But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food.

Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures. …

Some of those companies say that they are working to limit greenhouse gases produced by their businesses but that the question is how to do it. They oppose regulation and new taxes and, partly in an effort to head them off, are advocating consumer education instead.

Tesco, for instance, is introducing a labeling system that will let consumers assess a product’s carbon footprint.

Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry European greenhouses.

“This may be as radical for environmental consuming as putting a calorie count on the side of packages to help people who want to lose weight,” a spokesman for Tesco, Trevor Datson, said. …

Some studies have calculated that as little as 3 percent of emissions from the food sector are caused by transportation. But Mr. Watkiss, the Oxford economist, said the percentage was growing rapidly. Moreover, imported foods generate more emissions than generally acknowledged because they require layers of packaging and, in the case of perishable food, refrigeration. …

The problem is measuring the emissions. The fact that food travels farther does not necessarily mean more energy is used. Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe, where — for example — storing apples for months would require refrigeration.

But those studies were done in New Zealand, and the food travel debate is inevitably intertwined with economic interests.

Fish Piracy Feeds the Global Rich

A New York Times article Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade describes how fisheries collapse is leading roving bandits to scoop up the world’s valuable fish leaving little behind for local fishers:

Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world’s largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe’s appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region, according to the European Union.

In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.