At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Earth Pushes Back and Paris Climate Conference Responds

On the road to the achievements of the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the accumulating seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider

On the road to  the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider

Like divers surfacing above a sea of noise and ambivalence, negotiators in Paris on Saturday reached an agreement that commits nations to develop new energy strategies that hold “the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2 degrees C” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C.”

The Paris accord is momentous for innumerable reasons, not the least of which is because it recognizes, at last, that three powerful and unyielding economic and ecological trends have merged to relentlessly push governments to act. All are prompted by the collision between the resource-abundant development approach of the 20th century, and the increasingly dire environmental conditions of the 21st.

Since 2008, as a correspondent reporting on the global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of diminishing freshwater reserves, I’ve been a frontline eyewitness on five continents to our rapidly evolving circumstances.

By far, the most important change in our circumstances is that Mother Earth is fuming. The planet is pushing back hard, very hard, against mankind’s industrial depradations. Hurricanes drowned two American cities.  Mammoth wildfires race across the West, burning hottest in the fuel-stoked forests where fire was deliberately suppressed. Toxic algae contaminates drinking water drawn from warmer and more polluted rivers and lakes all over the world.

A Rein of Global Disorder
An earthquake this year damaged 14 hydropower dams in Nepal. In June 2013, a vicious flood that scientists linked to climate change killed thousands of people in Uttarakhand, India and wrecked that Himalayan state’s hydropower sector. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider

Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider

Deep droughts have been especially dangerous. Brazil’s largest city, America’s largest state, and nearly all of South Africa contend now with serious water scarcity. A 12-year dry spell in Australia’s food-producing Murray-Darling basin ended in 2010, but not before it caused the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere to collapse. More than 1 million metric tons of rice vanished from world markets. Australia’s wheat growers, typically the world’s sixth largest exporters, managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million metric tons of grain they normally produced. Both harvest failures contributed to rising grain prices. Recall that the Arab Spring in 2010 was touched off by rising food prices. Read More

Paris Negotiators Expected to Reach First Global Climate Pact

India prepared a climate action plan in preparation for COP 21 in Paris. The world's second largest nation faces big choices in energy production. Photo/Keith Schneider

India prepared a climate action plan in preparation for COP 21 in Paris. The world’s second largest nation faces big choices in energy production. Photo/Keith Schneider

French authorities issued an alert on November 18 about the upcoming COP 21 Paris global climate summit that needed almost no explanation. Two big public demonstrations planned for November 29 and December 12 would not take place, French officials declared, because of the risk they would be terrorist targets.

The Paris Climate Conference, which opens on November 30 and closes December 11, is the 21st United Nations-sponsored annual global gathering meant to “stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”

The conference is expected to attract close to 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, and civil society. Some 140 heads of state, among them President Obama, are expected to attend. UN organizers say that the Paris conference will “for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.”

In a way the Paris terrorist attack, coming so close to the start of the summit, resembles the unexpected online hacking attack that disrupted the start of COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Then, as now, there was great hope that negotiators from nearly 200 nations would reach agreement on an international accord to limit climate emissions and slow the planet’s dangerous warming.

Different Feel From Copenhagen
Just days before the Copenhagen climate summit started, though, hackers broke into an email cache at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, a top climate research group. The hackers uploaded the stolen emails, which included candid private conversation between scientists, to several sites. Opponents of climate action, and broadcast newsrooms, pounced on the emails and indecorously parsed them for evidence of scientific uncertainty about the authenticity of the planet’s warming, doubts that the emails never discussed. Read More

Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress

A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state's hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state’s hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

A paper earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States added fresh, peer-reviewed details about how a malicious four-year (2007 to 2010) drought in Syria played a role in touching off a calamitous civil war in 2011. The long rein of water scarcity ruined the farm economy, and drove over 1 million farmers and their families into unstable resource-scarce cities inspired by the Arab Spring to rebel against authoritarian rule.

The paper, like others before it, identifies climate change as the primary cause for the deepest and most economically disastrous drought in Syria’s history. The paper makes a powerful case for explaining that at least a portion of the anguish and fury of the civil war, the bedlam of obfuscation and bloody torment that has spread from Syria to Iraq to Beirut to Paris, is due to the Earth’s response to mankind’s ecological abuse.

This singular thought, that climate change can stir dangerous human conflict, is gaining salience across much of the world. One of its lone holdouts is the U.S. Congress, which apparently abhors science and prefers existing in an illusory landscape riven by the fury of its own ideology. More on that later.

We’ve Seen It Up Close
Those of us who’ve witnessed first hand the power of the Earth now to disrupt previously stable hydrological cycles, and cause global havoc, bear no such doubts.

California now reckons with a four-year drought that is putting grave pressure on groundwater supplies, and that several climatologists theorize is a facet of an enduring cycle of water scarcity unfolding in the American West.

California's four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America's largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider

California’s four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America’s largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last year I reported on a vicious Himalayan flood that killed as many as 30,000 people and wrecked the hydropower dams of Uttarakhand, India. The cloudburst that dumped a foot of rain on high Himalayan shoulders, and caused the banks of a big alpine lake to rupture, was later deemed by scientists to be one of the year’s significant examples of the hazards of climate change. The economic and technical consequences of the Uttarakhand flood also caved in India’s hydropower construction sector, and damaged the country’s ability to diversify its electrical generating industry with carbon-free energy sources. Read More

China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon

Shenzhen's high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city's economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shenzhen’s high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city’s economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHENZHEN, China – Although it is a distinctive way to view the world, to some extent the contemporary industrial age is a global narrative of substance abuse and recovery.

Sixty years ago the basic elements at the center of political and ecological concern were uranium and plutonium. Reckless Soviet and American atomic bomb blasts put so much deadly radiation in the atmosphere that milk and water became contaminated. Nations heeded the warnings of scientists and a global treaty to ban atmospheric testing was signed in 1963.

In the 1970s and 1980s the world came to recognize the malignant hazards of chlorine and its various chlorinated compounds used to manufacture pesticides, plastics, and coolants. A hole in the ozone opened over Antarctica. An industrial accident in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people. Trace residues showed up in food, in breast milk, and contaminated groundwater from leaking toxic waste dumps. Chlorine-based products were banned. Cleanup programs were instituted. Industrial safety improved.

Today, the world is steadily coming to agreement that carbon is the chemical compound putting life and economies at risk. Rejecting the views of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies in the United States, most national governments now heed the warnings of the climate-altering capability of carbon and are pivoting away from fossil fuel, its principle source.

The shift starts with coal and is starting to encompass oil. Coal production in the United States and western Europe is declining. Oil consumption in both regions is flat. Prices are sagging. Mexico banned new water drilling permits for shale oil and gas development near the Rio Grande Valley. Wind and solar electrical generating capacity is climbing quickly. A number of nations are developing new market signals and regulatory programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil, and to encourage cleaner energy alternatives. World leaders are set next month to converge on Paris to negotiate the first international agreement to limit carbon emissions.

In the United States, in an especially telling example of the global shift on fossil fuels, President Obama this week rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and ExxonMobil is being investigated for securities fraud. The company is charged with hiding its own scientific studies about the carbon emissions threat, and spending millions of dollars to protect its fossil fuel holdings by supporting lawmakers and interest groups that marketed the false idea that climate change is a scientific hoax.

Shenzhen's public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shenzhen’s public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Tilting To Cleaner Production Practices
I spent time this month in China’s Pearl River Delta as part of the Global Choke Point project I developed with Circle of Blue in 2010. The Choke Point project builds on seven years of multimedia reporting and convening that examines the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.

On the global resume of a world awakening to an era of ecological and economic reason, China’s new reckoning with the dangerous consequences of carbon stands out. Like a lover escaping the burden of a relationship that has suddenly grown difficult, China is steadily realigning its passion for coal, the largest source of carbon emissions. With an estimated 8.5 billion to 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, China produces more of the world’s carbon air pollution than any other nation. Read More

Donghao Chung, Guangzhou’s Daylighted Refuge

China's mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider

China’s mastery of public space design and water architecture is evident in Donghao Chung, once an ancient moat, then a sewer, and now an urban oasis. Photo: Keith Schneider

GUANGZHOU, China — Can a polluted stormwater drain newly constructed as an urban park speak for a city? Can a place of refuge, where clear water slips past slick rocks and families gather near the sound and mist of fountains, be an extension of a nation?

There’s always risk in heaping such rhapsody on a single example. Still, in the characteristically handsome Chinese design, and in the cooling embrace of its flowing water, the Donghao Chung greenway here defines something very new about this city and this nation: Ecological principles are steadily rising nearer to the top of China’s economic priorities.

Last year China’s President, Xi Jinping, visited Donghao Chung and said as much. “China wants to be known as a beautiful country. We want sustainable development. Donghao Chung is a small detail, a small part. By doing well with small parts China can paint a brilliant picture.”

Six years ago I made my first visit to China, which was still caught up in the storm of infrastructure construction, energy production, and urban development that made it the world’s second largest economy, and among the most polluted places on Earth. Though China was simultaneously building dozens of energy-efficient underground metro systems, a 10,000-kilometer high-speed rail network, and the globe’s largest wind, solar, and hydropower production sectors, top government officials did not express genuine interest in the ecological condition of their country.

A Nation Evolving
Perhaps in a triumph of rational recognition over economic ideology, or maybe it is economic rationale recognizing the painful consequences of rampant pollution, China is a changed nation in 2015. A year ago China reached a pact with the United States to reduce its climate changing emissions. A month ago, China announced it would establish a national carbon emissions trading market by 2017, a move to achieve the emissions reductions. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and other big cities regularly announce new policies and practices to clear the air of dreadfully high levels of particulates, and build new treatment plants to make the nation’s rivers and lakes safe.

The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider

The 4.5-kilometer park along Donghao Chung, runs for a time beneath an elevated freeway, and at other moments pools in a plaza open to the light and the sound of fountains. Photo: Keith Schneider

A good deal of the justification for taking these actions, and for spending the $US billions that it costs every year, resides in this provincial capital of 16 million to 18 million residents (nobody is quite sure), China’s third largest city. For several years, as the rest of the world now knows, Guangzhou’s economy has been slowing and shifting, from heavy reliance on manufacturing to new layers of professional, finance, travel, real estate, banking, and service enterprises. Read More