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This second of two posts about the Tianjin climate talks gets into the dismal politics responsible for the stalled policies.

The climate talks in Tianjin last week did very little to improve the prospects for a binding international treaty, which would reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are warming the globe. In the wake of the disappointing meeting, Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made her first official visit to China. During the trip, which began Saturday as Tianjin talks came to a close and ended yesterday, Jackson and her Chinese counterpart, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian, renewed a bilateral environmental “memorandum of understanding” that had expired in 2008. Will this pact help defuse the superpowers’ climate standoff?

Tensions in Tianjin

The frustrating UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting again made clear the gulf of understanding between the US and China. Like painful repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the Tianjin talks stalled when China refused to consider America’s call for all pledges made by developing countries to be independently monitored and verified. Claiming this would violate the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of differentiated responsibilities for rich and poor countries, Chinese negotiator Huang Huikang said, “I want to emphasize on our side no compromise on the two track process and no compromise on the interests of developing countries.”

The Times of India offered further insight into why developing giants like China are so opposed to independent monitoring: “The US stance of demanding equal level of scrutiny of mitigation actions of emerging economies is considered a backdoor route of converting the voluntary actions of countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa into international commitments.”

US climate change envoy Todd Stern, who was not even at Tianjin, further entrenched Chinese resistance to the American proposal. In a speech at the University of Michigan Law School, he alleged that China was acting as if the Copenhagen Accord “never happened.” Su Wei, a senior Chinese climate change delegate at the talks, responded in a press conference by comparing the US to a vain pig. “[The US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions,” Su huffed. “The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue–that is, emission reductions.”

Other nations watched helplessly as the political posturing of the world’s two largest climate polluters prevented movement on the other policies the negotiators had hoped to address in Tianjin.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: chesbayprogram (via Flickr)

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This post was picked up by The Multilateralist blog on Foreign Policy, a great magazine I have unsuccessfully interviewed with for a job.

Since the outcome of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen failed to meet the sky high hopes environmentalists had placed in it, international negotiators have been working hard ever since to lower expectations. Gone is talk of quickly crafting an binding successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively expires in 2012. Diplomats have given up on a firm agreement until the 2011 summit in South Africa and are instead trying to do what is “politically possible.”

Yet even with those diminished goals, the six-day Tianjin climate talks, which concluded this weekend, made so little progress that some diplomats openly wondered whether continuing the UNFCCC process was even politically worthwhile.

The Tianjin talks were a big deal. An estimated 3,100 delegates from 177 countries attended the talks from October 4-9. Thousands of other representatives from business and industry, environmental organizations and research institutions also attended the event.

UNFCCC meetings like this exist because world leaders believe a global commitment to reducing emissions and cooperating on clean energy and carbon storage is necessary to address global warming. The problem has been getting nations with very different interests to find policy solutions that every country can agree on. While no country will benefit from uncontrolled climate change, some have more to gain–or lose–from preventing it.

Problematic policies

Negotiators came to Tianjin with four items on their agenda: Codifying the voluntary pledges made after Copenhagen (as inadequate as they are), setting up the rules for forest conservation and clean tech cooperation, creating a process for transferring and verifying climate aid, and–most vexing–determining the structure of an eventual climate treaty. The hope was that diplomats could start working on the broad outlines in China and then sign a pact combining the areas of agreement in Mexico next month.

“The agreements that can be reached in Cancun may not be exhaustive in their details,” UNFCCC chief negotiator Christiana Figueres explained in a statement. “But as a balanced package they must be comprehensive in their scope and they can deliver strong results in the short term as well as set the stage for long term commitments to address climate change in an effective and fair manner.”

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: adopt a negotiator (via Flickr)

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350.org is an influential newcomer to the environmental movement. I was curious to hear how they got their start so I used this social media piece as an excuse to talk with some interesting people.

An abridged version of this story focused exclusively on 350.org ran on the front page of the Huffington Post’s Green section the weekend after the 10/10/10 Global Work Party mentioned below. It was featured just below a post from 350.org co-founder and aclaimed author Bill McKibben.

My bike helmet is hoisted in the air on the left side of this photo.

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world’s second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce and binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

By using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd name, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the “first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change.”

It was a surprising success.

Click here to keep reading about 350.org and Greenpeace or to make a comment.

Photo credit: 350.org (via Flickr)

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This was a wonky writing sample I did after my fourth interview with Inside EPA, a subscription investigative newsletter put out by the Inside Washington Publishers group. In the end, I was disappointed when the publishers decided they wanted someone with more newsroom experience, but I am still proud of the writing I submitted.

States Critical of GAO Report on Mountaintop Mining Financial Assurances and Oversight

The negative response of three out of four states to a recently released Government Accountability Office report, which raised questions about the adequacy of their long-term environmental monitoring and financial assurances for former mine sites, indicates any mountaintop mining regulatory changes will have to occur at the federal level.

The report, titled Surface Coal Mining: Financial Assurances for, and Long-Term Oversight of, Mines with Valley Fills in Four Appalachian States, focused on mountaintop mining in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Between October 1, 2001 and June 30, 2005, those four states accounted for more than 98 percent of US valley fills—a mountaintop mining remediation practice where excavated earth and rock is disposed of by filling in adjacent valleys or hollows. The GAO noted studies of long-term conditions near reclaimed mine sites with valley fills “have shown environmental impacts.” Although it makes no explicit recommendations, the report implies that states’ duration of environmental monitoring and provision of financial assurances may be inadequate. (more…)

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The title and headline I suggested for this piece was, “The Sustainable Olympics?: 2010 Winter Games organizers go for green, get tarnished bronze.” It is the longest Green.view I’ve written and the first to feature an inconspicuously embedded link to my previous reporting. (Check out the link below on “metal salvaged.”) Because it will be hidden behind a paywall soon, I’ve pasted the whole column under the photo. Before then, you can recommend my piece and respond to my favorite comment.

UPDATE: This column is the top science story featured on the “Online highlights” page of the February 27th issue of The Economist!


The 2010 Winter Olympics

THE record-breaking warmth experienced in Vancouver over the weeks running up to the Winter Olympics left the ski slopes slushy and bumpy, with many of the world’s best skiers tumbling like novices on a double black diamond. It also put something of a dent in the attempts by Vanoc, the organising committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics, to make its games greener than any that have come before. The poor conditions have required the shipping in of snow (more like slush by the time it gets there) from further north, using lorries and helicopters, and the application of a lot of extra effort into tending what snow there is naturally.

It is a measure of the amount of energy that such games require, though, that the dent made in the games’ carbon budget by all those lorries, helicopters and all-night snowcat operations has been, in relative terms, remarkably small. “If we used helicopters every day from this point until the end of February for eight hours a day, it would increase our carbon footprint by less than one percent,” Linda Coady, vice-president of sustainability for Vanoc, told reporters at the beginning of the month.

Though most sports fans may have missed the fact, since 1994 “sustainability” has been the official “third pillar” of the Olympic movement, the other two being sport and culture. In its commitment to this ideal, Vanoc has tried to produce a greener Olympics than any seen before. Leaving the problems of unseasonable warmth aside, how well has it done? (more…)

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