World Leaders Must Promote New Meaning of Progress

Author: Henri Landes, currently works on environmental and housing policy at the French Socialist Party. He also teaches environmental studies at Sciences Po Paris, where he graduated with a Master in Environment, Sustainable Development and Risks. French-American, born in New York City and raised in San Francisco, Henri studied history and German at the University of California, Davis, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa. He then played two years of professional tennis on the futures circuit before pursuing graduate studies.

On Tuesday the 25th of June, President Barack Obama delivered a convincing speech on the urgency to act against climate change. His skillful rhetoric and inspiring optimism hopefully persuaded any Americans that still questioned the need to address the issue – politicians of the opposition especially.

After many years of reluctance, the United States should finally “officially” launch itself into the climate change fight, and should do so with an international perspective. Obama’s speech was undoubtedly a strong statement, notably taking into account a complicated international context of economic crisis, and a domestic one of divided politics. However, I would have liked to hear some newer ideas on how to mitigate climate change, as well as a connection drawn between climate change and a global socio-economic crisis.  

With regards to international solutions, Obama primarily stressed ending public financing for coal factories – unless carbon capture is included – trade of clean technologies and both bilateral and international cooperation to increase renewable energy development. As much as these are necessary, these solutions are all relatively consensual and old news in the world of climate activists. Few argue that we need to continue using the dirtiest energy source, and market based solutions for renewable energy upscale already have several success as well as failure stories (the second due in most cases to ineffective regulation and poor investment strategies, i.e. solar energy in France).

Market based solutions to climate change have been the United States’ trademark in international negotiations, to the dismay of developing countries who have looked to the US and other historical polluters for leadership in setting binding greenhouse gas reduction targets and in proposing regulatory measures. These market-based solutions are in my view largely insufficient to tackle climate change, and must be completed with others. The recent curve of global greenhouse gas emissions and climate trends of the past few years are ample proof (storms and flooding in South-East Asia, drought in Africa and in the US, etc.). We are currently on a path of roughly 4 degrees of global warming by 2060, and the next IPCC report in the fall will reveal much more troubling information.

Climate change is a problem of unprecedented nature, and it brings us to a turning point. It has been caused by certain aspects of our economic model of production and consumption, at both national and international levels. The inability of the world economy to effectively internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation and natural resource depletion is undisputed. Lire la suite

Barack Obama’s Climate Speech: A counter-article

Author:  Sébastien Burgess, born in Paris in 1989. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Conservation and Resources Studies. Lives in Mexico City where he works as a cartographer on local environmental projects and sports commentator. Has been involved in environmental activism since his college years and is a proud member of CliMates since its creation in 2011.
Follow me on Twitter @BurgessSeb

Barack Obama’s speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday, June 25th marked an anticipated political event and set important guidelines for climate change legislation for the United States moving forward. Barack Obama has been dealt a very difficult hand since becoming President of the United States in January 2009th. An economic crisis of unprecedented proportion and a science-denying, climato-septic Republican-led Congress has made his political margin of maneuver to deal with climate change policy extremely limited.

In 2009, the American Clean Energy  and Security Act of 2009 which would have established an ambitious cap and trade system for the United States passed the House of Representatives but died on the Senate floor. Everything went downhill from there, the 2010 Republican Legislative victory temporarily sealed the fate of significant greenhouse reductions legislation to be passed in Congress. In fact, in 2011,the House of Representatives was deemed to be the « most anti-environmental house in the History of Congress »[1] as House Republicans voted a record 191 times to weaken environmental regulations including 27 votes to block action on climate change legislation and this in a year which saw record drought, flooding and wildfires.  The only way Obama could possibly influence climate policy was through direct executive action during that span such as setting limit on car exhaust for US car manufacturers to produce cars that average of 35.5mpg by 2016 for example[2]. Good-willed but woefully inadequate political initiatives for a country that contributes to close to 20% of worldwide Co2 emissions annually  and whose citizens emit around 17.2 tons of Co2 per capita per year.

Fast forwarding to June 25th speech now, which despite its clear benevolence, perspired of political opportunism,  as Obama had carefully avoided the slippery slopes of climate change talks for the past two year yeas, a politically dangerous topic in the United States that Obama was electorally « wise » enough to avoid during his election year. Now comfortably settled into a second term with nothing to lose moving forward and after 4 years of climate inaction, the 44rth U.S. president could courageously roll up his sleeves and attack the most serious topic our generation and our children will face this coming century.

Obama’s speech in some ways was a milestone and establishes coherent guidelines in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and launching a war on coal, the urgency of elaborating climate adaptation plans in the United States and the importance of re-imitating climate talks at the UN level.  It is a necessary document which hopefully will launch the country into a new dynamic of increased renewable energy use, cleaner consumption and increased awareness about the impending climate threat. However, upon further study, it falls well short of the mark and of launching a necessary global impulsion, a push that the United States could and should embrace to lead the way into a cleaner and more sustainable 21st century. Lire la suite

Climate Change: Think Globally and Act Locally

Author: Deepak Raj Joshi
Bachelor in Agriculture Science (B.Sc.Ag)
Participating in CliMates research project on Water Vulnerability
Agriculture Program Officer WOREC-Nepal 
Action Partner (OXFAM International Youth Partnership 2010-2013)
Global Environmental Advocacy and Production Association (GEAPA)

On February 22nd, a one-day climate academy was organized by Plant for the Planet, at Janata high school, Phapharbari, Makawanpur (Nepal).  Phapharbari is a remote part of this district about 45 kilometers from the main city, it is mostly inhabited by the marginalized Tamang community. 75 students and teachers from eight schools participated in the program. Pariwartan Nepal, a local NGO, was the local supporter of the academy.

The main objective of the program was to teach students about climate science and motivate them to live a green life. Students learned many new things from the academy, it was the very first program of this kind in this remote area. Sumitra Rai, a 13 year-old student shares: “I have never watched such a presentation in my life. It was even my first experience with a laptop. It is really great to learn so many things about climate change and how it is impacting our life”. Similarly, another student Santosh B.K, 14, adds: “I’m now sure that I’ll  do something in my school. I’m very excited to talk about climate change to my community and at school; I hope everyone will support me in the coming days as well”.Climate academy 7

School teacher Rina Lama explains that the day was not only designed for students: “This academy also trains us, the teachers. We learned many things about how to motivate students to act about environmental issues, or how developed countries bear the responsibility Lire la suite

Forward On Climate Rally: 50,000 People Say No To Tar Sands And Make History In The US

Author: Chloe Maxmin
Harvard College, Class of 2015
Founder, First Here, Then Everywhere : http://www.firstheretheneverywhere.org
Twitter: @chloemaxmin

On February 17th, I was part of history. 50,000 people from around North America traveled to Washington DC for the Forward on Climate rally–the largest climate rally in US history. We protested the Keystone XL pipeline and the expansion of tar sands oil.

Tar sands exploitation was recently identified as one of 14 « carbon bombs. » A mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a hydrocarbon that can be processed into crude oil), tar sands is extracted from under Canada’s Boreal Forest. It is a gooey tar-like substance that must be diluted with toxic carcinogenic chemicals to get through a pipeline. Compared to conventional oil, it is 70 times more viscous, 20 times more acidic, and has three times the spill rate. Producing crude from tar sands also emits three times more greenhouse gas emissions than producing conventional oil. If fully exploited, the combustion of these fossil fuel reserves would cause global temperatures to rise between 5 and 6 degrees Celsius--a level of warming that the World Bank deemed un-adaptable. According to climate scientist James Hanse, « Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. »

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What’s more: the extraction of tar sands has devastating effects on local communities, especially First Nation peoples. Chemicals from the extraction site contaminate local water sources, endangering drinking water and affecting wildlifein the region. These communities continue to live traditional lifestyles, living off of the land and depending on  Lire la suite

There is no (legal definition of) climate refugee

Tsunami warming in Tuvalu

Tsunami warming in Tuvalu

In the public debate on climate change, politicians, journalists and activists often mention the threat of the increasing number of “climate refugees”. The “climate refugee”, however, does not exist legally.

A unique definition

After the disastrous events of the Second World War and the ensuing massive movements of population fleeing across Europe, the United Nations General Assembly decided in December 1950 to convene a conference to negotiate and sign a Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and Statelessness persons.
In July 1951, twenty-six countries were represented in Geneva to agree on a new Convention framing a legal status and an international protection for refugees.

The main input of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is to give an international definition of the term “refugee”. The article 1-A.(2) stipulates three different criteria for the status of refugee:

  • The fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion;
  • The person is outside the country of his or her nationality (or habitual residence);
  • The person is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.

Only these three elements frame the international legal definition of a refugee. This is why a so-called climate refugee does not match the criteria of the Geneva Convention.
For example, if we consider that Katrina in 2005 was a climate change related event, the fact is that the persons displaced did not flee the USA and did not fear to be persecuted for their race or opinion. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, these movements are named internal displacements and people are displaced persons.  At the opposite of “refugees”, the displaced persons do not have any particular international protection and remain under the protection of their state.
To overcome this legal obstacle, some law professors such as David Hodgkinson (University of Western Australia), Michel Prieur (University of Limoges – France) have coined the expression of climate displaced persons or environmentally displaced persons.

A growing number of climate displaced persons

Quantifying the number of climate displaced persons and environmentally displaced persons is quite a difficult exercise and until 2011, data on this matter were direly scarce. In June 2011, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) released a report showing that in 2010, more than 42 million persons were displaced because of natural disasters. Among these 42 million persons, NRC highlighted that 90% of them were displaced because of climate related events such as floods and storms.

NRC 2011

Furthermore, Norman Myers (University of Oxford) estimates that by 2050 “there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding“. The seriousness of the situation forces the international community to find appropriate solutions.

Which solution(s) for a full protection of the climate displaced persons?

At a conference organised a year ago at the Law School of the University of Columbia (NYC, US), lawyers and professors met to discuss means and solutions for a protection of the climate displaced persons and especially in case of the disappearing of a territory or a State (for example with the Small Island Developing States of the Pacific and Indian Oceans). Michel Prieur and David Hodgkinson proposed two drafts of international agreements to first offer a legal status to the climate displaced persons and second to circumscribe the instruments of their protection.

In the light of the past and current incapacities of the international negotiations on environment to foster actions meeting the current and future needs  (Copenhagen or Rio), it seems – unfortunately – difficult to imagine that States could agree on a status of climate refugee and an international legal protection.

Forget adaptation, it’s all about vulnerability!

Mangrove plantation in Tuvalu (South Pacific)

After six weeks of intense research work, the CliMates delegations from China to Colombia and from Austria to the US have finally submitted their topic papers on adaptation, more precisely on the links between adaptation to climate change and development.
Adaptation and mitigation are the two core issues discussed in the international climate negotiations, like this week and the last one in Bonn (Germany). As I highlighted in my previous post, adaptation is a pretty fierce debate between developed and developing countries, and even among developing countries between emerging and least-developed countries. The debate on adaptation is not, however semantically right, or could at least be defined differently. Really, what countries are trying to reduce by negotiating at the UNFCCC is the level of risk.

If you just have a look at your Oxford dictionary, risk is only defined as a situation involving exposure to danger. From a more scientific point of view, risk is a triangle combining hazard, the elements exposed (understanding exposure, population or assets) and their vulnerability. The three elements together shape a triangle, the risk triangle as you can see in the figure below.

Risk Triangle (Chrichton, Kron)In this perspective, the level of risk is estimated by the surface of the triangle; thus reducing only one of the elements of the triangle will consequently affect the whole area and will then diminish the level of risk. According to David Chrichton, the risk triangle’s father, the three elements composing the triangle could be defined as such:
Exposure: assets, goods and populations exposed to hazards;
Hazard: the likelihood of an extreme natural event taking into accounts its intensity and probability of occurrence;
Vulnerability: the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with adverse effects of an event (IPCC, WG 2, 2007).

The risk triangle offers a general background for natural hazards, exposure and vulnerability. If we decided to look at these three elements shaping the risk triangle in a climate change perspective, then the conclusion emphasizes the significance of vulnerability in the climate debate.

Because of increasing global GDP at a current rate of 3.6% (forecasted for 2012) and global population at a rate of 1.1% ( estimated for 2012) we can expect the exposure side to become longer in the coming years.

Following the last IPCC SREX report, both frequency and intensity of disasters are expected to increase over the next decades. In some specific cases though, for instance with tropical cyclones, only intensity is however expected to increase, as Thomas R. Knutson and his co-writers showed in 2010 (Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change, Nature Geoscience). They further explained that the frequency of category 1 to 3 cyclones will decrease while category 4 to 5 cyclones will increase.

In a context of changing climate, global demographic and economic growth, we observe that both exposure and hazard sides of the triangle are expected to get longer and then increase the area of risk. Hence, for the next decades, risk reduction will only depend upon reducing vulnerability. Furthermore, according to IPCC (Climate Change 2001, Synthesis Report) developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change and vulnerability “is most extreme among the poorest people”. As an illustration of this, IPCC SREX report shows that, from 1970 to 2008, over 95% of natural disaster-related deaths occurred in developing countries.

Tackling the adverse effects of climate change requires maximising the resilience capacity of communities. Resilience is defined as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self organisation, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change” (IPCC, 2007, WG 2). Increasing resilience capacity does not necessarily and always involve costly investments and heavy infrastructures. For example, in Niger, by regenerating native trees and shrubs, farmers have increased agricultural yield and their resilience to climate change. In Samoa, the World Bank approved the first country strategy focused on reducing vulnerability to climate change, natural disasters and economic shocks.

Vulnerability mitigation tends to become the new focus of international organisations and governments. This is exactly what adaptation must be about.

CliM’Eats

Last month, a bunch of CliMates gathered in Paris to have brunch and discuss how we should go about changing the world. In addition to enjoying some delicious baguette, croissants and home made cake, we chatted over whether or not stronger national states are instrumental in the fight against climate change, how we should be way more critical of business as usual and the egoistico-altruistic human nature.

We first spent some time wondering whether or not, on our way towards sustainability, we should seek to reinforce the states in order to achieve it globally. Some of us felt that states, entrenched in their national interest logics, have shown to be driven by the wrong objectives and to be committing less than they are able to. In the context of climate negotiations, the demonstration has been made that the sum of actions dictated by national interests doesn’t add up to anything near the kind of collective effort we need to tackle climate change. So should we think global, act local… and forget a little about national?

The logic of national interest may be standing in the way of progress for international conferences, nevertheless, as Nicholas Stern and Laurence Tubiana  pointed out, states are the only force strong enough to overcome the short-term logic of finance with their capacity to invest in the long term. Strong states, serious about the wellbeing of its future generations and thus committed to an ambitious green investment strategy, are probably our best hope of overcoming the challenges we face.

Halfway through the nutella pot, we moved on to sharing about how stunned we are that we don’t see a much broader range of people and organizations openly and aggressively criticizing how destructive business as usual really is; how ravaging the oil economy actually is, and how recklessly we currently drawdown natural resources. As Thomas pointed out, in 2006, oil has been the most important source of revenues worldwide. An economy so dependant upon a resource that vulnerable to scarcity, combined with stagnating revenues, basically led the world to borrow on international markets, and this led to the mortgage bubble and the monumental crisis of 2008. That is to say that the scarcity of resources has lead to widespread default on payment and is important in explaining the crisis. And yet, nobody is talking about it! Instead, energy security takes up all the room for debate.

The role of our reckless use of nature in the on-going crisis of capitalism should be at the centre stage of political debates right now. Yet, it has hardly been a decisive issue in the French political campaign – and, with the little revolution of domestic natural gas in the US, the scarcity of resources most likely won’t even appear on the radar of the American presidential debate (not to mention how toxic the issue has become).

After a few words about the responsibility of civil society – and the key importance of our choices as consumers – we moved on to a long tangent on cosmopolitism, egoism and altruism.

A good point was made that, historically, one’s community basically corresponded to one’s village. Today, communities have become global. In fact, most of us having brunch together that day were third culture kids, cosmopolite, with the experience of living in different countries. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that we pretty much all agreed that what we find most interesting is to get involved and cooperate on solving global issues.

And then arose the question of individualism: is it not because we are individualist that we can so easily extract ourselves from our local community and seek those who resemble us elsewhere, around a larger question? And then, pursuing the public good and dedicating all of our energy to contributing to making the world a better place… is there not in that some form of self-promotion and personal branding? I.e., is the human nature ultimately egoistic, no matter how hard we work at having a positive impact?

I for one argued that getting involved in one’s community is in fact the source of a profound sense of shared happiness. And indeed, we around the table were all living examples that bonding with others over pursuing together a higher purpose is simply one of the great joys in life. And call me crazy, but I think that naming “egoistic” those who commonly seek fulfilment through virtuous acts is a bad vocabulary choice.

Maybe the conclusion to this is that we should redefine our conception of altruism by incorporating the wellbeing of others into our conception of individual wellbeing. One that would capture the fact that hurting others comes down to hurting ourselves – and that doing something positive for the community feels great.

* Credit for this post goes to all CliMates whose ideas fed this post: Thomas Spencer, Henri Landes, Margot Le Guen, Céline Steer, Jonathan Bowman-Clark, Béatrice Cointe, Cécile Massé and Jean-Igor Michaux