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This was my third and final dispatch from the climate conference. It follows up on a piece written the day before for TNR. A colleague forwarded along evidence that supported my central thesis: businesses have mixed motives about climate change and, as such, should be kept a safe distance from the climate negotiations. Unfortunately, that distance is being increasingly diminished.


CANCUN, Mexico — Most observers agree that the Cancun deal is a tremendous achievement for UN climate process and a testament to the dogged diplomacy of the tireless Mexican hosts. After reaching what was a seemingly impassable divide over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators worked into the early hours this morning to produce two compromise texts that were agreed upon by all but the Bolivian delegation.

All that has been widely reported. What has been less discussed in the growing influence of large multinational corporations over the UN climate process. This is, as I wrote yesterday for The New Republic, “cause for concern.” Because businesses are quarterly-driven entities beholden primarily to their investors – not the long-term public interest – it isdangerous to allow them a prominent role in the climate negotiations. This risk was made evident by a letter Greenpeace uncovered shortly after the story was published.

While the government of Mexico worked hard to include corporations in the climate protection discussion that occurred here over the past two weeks, some big businesses used the platform they provided to push their narrow self interests. Shell was a particularly dishonest actor. On Wednesday its executive vice-president Graeme Sweeney joined Mexican Secretary of Economy Bruno Ferrari at a panel sponsored by the national development agency to discuss the role the private sector can play in preventing catastrophic climate change.

“Sweeney used every opportunity to emphasize the importance of funding R&D for carbon capture and sequestration—a promising but completely unproven technology to reduce emissions from coal plants,” I wrote of the event. “While Shell’s commitment to climate action is nice, it also seems to be a glorified form of lobbying.”

But, as I learned later, pushing for dubious solutions to the climate crisis wasn’t the only thing the oil company was doing to undermine the negotiations. Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: Lee Jordan (via Flickr)

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This piece, my first to lead TNR.com, was given three different titles by the editors there — none of which I particularly liked. They were: In Cancún, Corporations Are Taking Over The U.N. Climate Talks; Corporations Fight The U.N. Climate Talks In Cancún; and on the front page, Can Wal-Mart Stop Global Warming? The title above is probably the best representation of the post below.

One historical note: I hopped a plane to Mexico without a plan or press passes because an editor from the Guardian newspaper contacted me about doing some guest blogging for them. He rejected a pitch for this story due to the timing and another pitch about Evo Morales because his corespondent was already planning a piece on the Bolivian president. Although I was disappointed to not make onto the Guardian’s site, leading TNR.com is a new accomplishment (and one that paid me nearly as much). Pretty good for flying south on a hope and a prayer, I think.

Cancún, Mexico—Another year, another round of U.N. climate talks. This year’s discussions in Cancún are likely to end much as last year’s haggling in Copenhagen did—without a firm global treaty to stop drastic climate change. But the stalemate has led to an intriguing side development: Large, multinational corporations are starting to play an outsized role in the negotiations. If world leaders can’t agree on how best to cut carbon emissions (and, so far, it’s not clear they can), then the world’s CEOs may start taking the lead. But is that really a positive development?

Consider some examples: On the very first day of the Cancún talks, the Consumer Goods Forum, a coalition of more than 400 of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers, pledged to use its market might to help stop deforestation by 2020. The forum also pledged to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons—refrigeration gases that are thousands of times more potent than CO2—by 2015. This week, Wal-Mart came out in support of a major global forest-preservation initiative, REDD, and has announced plans to expand its sustainable palm oil policy.

Mexican Secretary of the Economy Bruno Ferrari

To top it all off, the Mexican government announced that it had secured $55 million in private low-carbon investments since the beginning of the talk—all this while wealthy nations struggle to come up with funds to finance carbon reductions in the developing world.

It’s clear that private companies are stepping in to do what the public sector hasn’t been able to do—take concrete steps and shell out money to reduce greenhouse gases. Indeed, many officials are starting to treat these firms as major actors akin to governments. “I’m sure in the future [the Cancun conference] is going to be remembered as the moment when you have an additional part of the COP that is related with business,” predicted Bruno Ferrari, Mexico’s secretary of the economy. Last week, hundreds of businesses leaders staged their own climate summit. The message seemed clear: NGOs and non-profits haven’t been able to fix the climate problem, so let’s see if the private sector can.

Can they? It’s clear that private companies can act much more nimbly than governments. The measures taken by the Consumer Goods Forum and Wal-Mart will start taking have real effects on global greenhouse gases immediately, whereas a formal climate treaty won’t materialize until at least next year in Durban, South Africa—if that.

But there’s also cause for concern. Click here to read the rest of this post on The Vine.

 

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As I was writing up my TAP test post “Job Openings for Inspectors General,” I was shocked to discover that Interior, the agency responsible for offshore  drilling, was among the departments that lacked a presidential-appointed watchdog. I looked into it further for this, my second piece for The New Republic and first bit of reporting on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote that “President Obama isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current [Gulf oil] spill.” He pointed out that the president took too long to appoint a new director of the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling and had a dismal record under President Bush. Krugman also cited the decision by MMS to exempt the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation from a comprehensive environmental review just eleven days before the rig exploded.

But Krugman missed a few things in his column. Perhaps more glaringly, Obama has also failed to nominate an inspector general for the Interior Department, where MMS is located. In the past, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has been a crucial supervisory body exposing fraud and mismanagement at the agency. During the Bush years, OIG head Earl Devaney uncovered the criminally cozy relationship MMS had with the oil companies it was supposed to be regulating. And Devaney was the guy who investigated the ties between Jack Abramoff and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles.

In February 2009, however, Obama put Devaney in charge of tracking stimulus payouts, and since then, the inspector general position has gone unfilled. Why? It may be that the White House (which did not respond to my requests for comment) feels comfortable with the job that Devaney’s deputy, Mary Kendall, is doing as acting inspector general. But if that’s the case, why not nominate her for Senate approval and remove the “acting” stigma from her title.  That would make a big difference: As the Center for Public Integrity reported last week, officials say that acting inspectors general lack “the authority, public standing, and ability to set the agenda that a Senate-approved, presidential appointee brings to the job.”

Could an inspector general have made a difference? It seems likely…

Click here to read the rest of The Vine post and to make a comment.

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The Prospect liked my previous pieces enough that they gave me the opportunity to take a follow-up writing test. This time around, they requested that I pitch a story for the mid-term elections and write three posts that could have been featured on the magazine’s group blog TAPPED. For the blog pieces, which I am posting on Hiar Learning, I tried to emphasize my analytical strengths in selecting the topics I chose to blog about. This first post has a slight environmental bent.

The Center for Public Integrity has published the results of a thought-provoking survey of vacant government oversight positions by John Solomon. The Center’s journalist-in-residence compiled a list of 73 inspectors general, chief auditors, or whistleblower protection positions across government and found that at least 15 are currently unfilled or being covered by acting officials.

Solomon makes a compelling argument that if the Obama administration intends to live up to its professed commitment to transparency, it must work to fill these important positions as soon as possible. “Over the years, government watchdogs have produced some memorable investigations, uncovering federal workers who watched pornography from government computers, revealing that federal housing vouchers were still being paid to dead Americans, and disclosing the FBI’s illegal gathering of phone records,” he notes.

There is nothing stopping the administration from immediately hiring inspectors general at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Communications Commission, the Labor Relations Authority, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Senate confirmation is not required to fill IG posts at these four agencies and, possibly the Federal Housing Finance Agency, too. (In the text of the report, it says the agency’s IG nominee is awaiting confirmation, but on CPI’s spreadsheet, it says the FHFAIG doesn’t require confirmation.) Since December, the House of Representatives has also had its own IG position to fill.

Why are the administration and Congress dragging their feet about these oversight openings? (more…)

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, talking, and reading about Obama’s embrace of drilling off America’s coasts. And one connection I found most people seem to have missed is its utility in his push for Iranian nuclear sanctions. I ran the numbers, called up some experts, and put it all together for The New Republic–a magazine I’ve long respected and to which I’ve wanted to contribute.

UPDATE: My post was noted on the University of Illinois’ Carbon Capture Report and picked up by The Australian, the country’s biggest-selling national newspaper.

Many observers were puzzled last week when President Obama announced his support for expanded offshore oil drilling. Was he trying to win over Republican swing votes for a climate bill? Head off the inevitable anger over summer gas prices? Perhaps. But here’s another possibility: The move could have been intended to bolster international support for sanctions on Iran. At least that’s what events from the nuclear summit earlier this week suggest.

On Monday, Obama apparently convinced Chinese President Hu Jintao to pursue sanctions as a means of dissuading Iran from developing its nuclear program. As Time noted, “Obama reportedly indicated that the U.S. would help China make up any shortfall in oil imports resulting from Iranian retaliation for any Chinese support for sanctions.” China is concerned about its growing reliance on crude imports and possible disruptions in the global oil markets. So Obama’s offshore-drilling embrace may have been intended to signal that he’s doing everything possible to avoid that fate.

Click here to read the rest of The Vine blog post and leave a comment.

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