At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Steps To A Safer World

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in 2009 to reach agreement on slowing climate change. Not much was done. Photo/Keith Schneider

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in 2009 to reach agreement on slowing climate change. Not much was done at the time. More may be possible now. Photo/Keith Schneider

Bloomberg reported today that Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever NV joined 68 other companies in urging world governments to cap carbon emissions at levels that scientists say could stabilize the rising temperatures and keep the planet safer. Governments also are still working to develop a treaty for consideration in 2015 that would limit carbon emissions and keep the temperature rise since the late 19th century to 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even Exxon Mobil takes seriously the threat of climate change, or at least the risk that governments may regulate carbon emissions. In March, at the insistence of shareholders, Exxon Mobil agreed to publish a report on its vulnerability to such regulations and the potential that some portion of its oil, gas, and coal reserves could become stranded assets.

Of all the steps that need to be taken to secure the planet from certain ecological turmoil caused by the warming atmosphere, arguably none is more critical than reducing carbon pollution. In April 2009, researchers from Germany, England, and Switzerland, led by Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, published “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C” in Nature, the science journal.

The authors found that human beings had no chance to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius unless the world released no more than 1,437 gigatons (1 gigaton is 1 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide from 2000 to 2050. The scientists made a strong case for ensuring that the world’s atmospheric temperature not increase 2 degrees by limiting carbon emissions to 886 gigatons.

The problem is that 234 gigatons had already been emitted and at that rate the proposed 886 gigaton limit would be exceeded by 2024. Bill McKibben, in a breath-taking article in Rolling Stone two years ago, explained that if the world’s energy companies developed and sold all of the fossil energy in their global reserves, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere would vastly exceed any of the proposed gigaton limits.

We live on a beautiful planet that is warming. This is Bass Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

We live on a beautiful planet that is warming. This is Bass Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

Most of the world’s governments have been slow to embrace the idea that climate change is an authentic threat to their national well-being. That’s because the killing hurricanes and typhoons, the murderous floods, the crop-ravaging and food price-raising droughts, the wicked fires aren’t wearing military uniforms. The attackers don’t carry guns and don’t seek to plant flags of invasion.

But the world’s people are coming to recognize the danger that is unfolding around them. And with steady strength they are calling for regulation on carbon emissions. It’s unclear how long a political breakthrough will take in the United States, Europe, China, India and other big carbon-producing regions. But pricing carbon and limiting carbon combustion seems inevitable, which is why energy markets are nervous about stranding trillions of dollars in coal and oil that will need to be left undeveloped. Read More

Washington Is Not Working — Literally

The House of Representatives isn't doing much these days unless it's voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

The House of Representatives isn’t doing much these days unless it’s voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Two events occurred here on Thursday this week that together are a nearly perfect distillation of why this otherwise pleasant city has become the capital of intransigence and frustration for people like me concerned about our national interest.

In the morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced, in a 5-4 decision, that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that the wealthy can spend just about as much as they like to elect candidates of their choice. The ruling is the latest evidence that the hard right turn that the nation took with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is producing ever bigger dividends for his supporters.

Reagan’s administration was devoted almost entirely to instituting Reaganomics, then touted as a means to reduce taxes and balance the budget. But what Reaganomics was really about, as its critics predicted, was enabling the wealthy to become so rich they could completely segregate themselves from the rest of the country. The Thursday Supreme Court ruling makes it much easier for the rich to control legislation and erect even higher barriers of self-protection.

Within hours of the Court’s ruling, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal a provision of the Affordable Care Act. It was the 52nd time the House has moved against President Obama’s health care law. And like all the other times, the legislation has no chance of being enacted. The vote came a few days after the White House announced that 7 million people had signed up for insurance under the health care law, in my view an administration accomplishment. Republicans barked that the White House made up that number.

The larger point is that aside from harping on the president, and hoping voters send more arch conservatives to Washington in the fall, the House has expressed scant interest in anything else — wages, unemployment, immigration, energy, climate change, tax reform. Americans spend a lot of money to keep politicians and their bright young staffs idle in Washington.

I’ve spent a long time around Washington since 1980. My work as a journalist and former non-profit executive involves interviewing elected lawmakers, agency heads, and research personnel, and collaborating with public interest experts. I worked full-time in Washington, from 1985 to 1993, as a correspondent for the New York Times, which comes with unusual access to centers of influence and the responsibility to dig and report well in the public interest. Read More

Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand's hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand’s hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reporting on a righteous disaster, one that unfolds in the various stages of direct impact, colossal damage, rising body counts, and fiercesome cost, always comes with the mandatory account of warnings issued and ignored. Ten days ago a mountain slope collapsed north of Seattle, unleashing a river of mud on a rural community, killing over 20 people and causing an estimated $10 million in damage to property. It is said to be one of the worst landslides in American history.

While visiting my mother in Manhattan over the weekend, she recounted these details and also noted: “You know, there were warnings. The people said they never got them.”

Aah. American landslide as global metaphor.

In the work to define accountability, I explained, the issued warnings and the culpability of local officials who did not deliver them is sure to be the stuff of courtroom testimony. But in the real world of Washington State or just about any other place in America, had those warnings actually been issued and gained attention they would have attracted nothing but political outrage.

Property owners in the hillside’s shadow would have pelted local officials with sharp rhetorical objects designed to shut off communication, preserve property values, and keep insurance costs down. Where was the scientific proof of an impending collapse, they would have asked. How could their local leaders put property values in such jeopardy? Nobody would want to invest in their land and homes if the claims of impending disaster persisted.

What about that 2006 partial collapse? See, it was no big deal. The hillside hardly moved.

And then it did — at the speed of a flood. A square mile of land at the hill’s bottom was covered in mud, in places 70 feet thick. That’s deep enough to entomb most of the missing.

The Snohomish County landslide occurred at the same time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the latest of its scientific studies on the rising consequences of the Earth’s warming atmosphere.

As you’ve read here with magnifying urgency, the Earth is not playing around. It’s pushing back hard against industrial depradations, carbon pollution, population growth, and mismanagement of every kind. Read More

Lake Michigan Ice Caves, Evidence of a Mighty Scheme

Deep cold, ample ice, and relentless snow during the 2014 winter produced a landscape of winds sharp and frozen warp. Photo/Keith Schneider

Deep cold, ample ice, and relentless snow during the 2014 winter produced a landscape of frozen warp. Photo/Keith Schneider

LELAND, Mi — The northern Michigan winter this year, with its Arctic cold and persistent snow, has locked Lake Michigan’s shoreline in towering walls of ice. It’s a frozen grip. The gales of January and the calmer winds of February, shifting from stout to steady, pulled the water and pushed the ice until it careened upward and outward, forming pregnant walls and bridges that birthed big caves.

North of Leland, walls of ice have formed along the Lake Michigan coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

North of Leland, walls of ice have formed along the Lake Michigan coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

Yesterday, gloriously cold and sunny, hundreds of people gathered north of this Lake Michigan shoreline village to explore the icy landscape, a rare example of the water’s warp not likely to be seen again anytime soon. Children and dogs slipped through crevices and slid down the steep faces of icy walls. Older people carefully navigated the ice, peering into caves, and settling onto sun-washed ice shelves that were out of the wind where it was surprisingly warm.

Everywhere there were smart phones and digital cameras documenting the kids, the families, the pretty girls, smiling and draped on the ice. Indeed, it was a day to celebrate the beautiful place where we all live. The sculpted formations, edged smooth, rounded by the wind, were painted by a bright sun — brilliant white, deep blue, and shades of aqua marine.

Families explored the crevices and caves in the ice on Lake Michigan. Photo/Keith Schneider

Families explored the crevices and caves in the ice on Lake Michigan. Photo/Keith Schneider

Snow, of course, has a perfect memory. Each winter here it finds the same gullies to fill, the same stream beds to cloak, the same trees and rocks and fields to cover. But it’s the depth of the snow, and the ice, that’s different this year. Read More

This is India — TII

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Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters to a blue pool. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — This beautiful and tidy hill station city in Meghalaya, in Northeast India, is steadily expanding along the ridge tops and steep slopes of the region’s Himalayan foothills. Among the reasons is that few cities in India, and few Indian states for that matter, are as picturesque, as uncrowded, or as clean.

One striking example of Meghalaya’s natural beauty is Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, which pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters (1,100 feet) onto a gold-colored outcropping of solid rock. White and bubbling, the stream ends its dive in a deep blue pool. Along the entire length of Noh Ka Likai Falls, from the daredevil jump into space, to the galloping turbulence of water rushing to fill the blue bowl, the whole of Earth seems to quiver with beauty that is unsurpassed by anything other than what is found in nature.

Yet this wonder of the world commemorates not the stream that links the sky and the land, not the ribbons of white and splashes of blue. No, this magnificent waterfall is said by Indian folklore and ritual to explore the import of the very darkest impulses of man. The legend that greets visitors on a big metal sign, and explains where the fall’s name originates, encompasses betrayal, jealousy, infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide. I kid you not.

The story is this. A young single mother newly married to a man jealous of his infant stepdaughter tricks his new bride into eating a meal made from the flesh of the baby girl. The mother discovers her daughter’s finger in the meal. Engulfed by disgust and horror hurls she herself to her death at the place where the water plummets from the cliff. (See full legend in picture just below.)

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I explained to my Indian guide that in the United States and other western nations such a magnificent display of nature’s elegance would typically be honored with a name that marks its location, its discoverer, or what it inspires in the human spirit. Ruby Falls in Tennessee. Grand Falls in Arizona. Cumberland Falls in Kentucky. Bridal Veil Fall in California.

Meghalaya is different. Here a great waterfall recounts a monstrous tale of infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide.

TII. This is India.

Generally, toward the end of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S., I collect the various and intriguing threads — events or locations or people — that strike me as emblematic of a western journalist’s experience in a different place. They come together in essays that I call TII — This is India. TIM — This is Mongolia. TIC — This is China. TIQ — This is Qatar. The titles are borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”

In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India.

Driving habits that are apparently reckless, but not really — I’ve encountered interesting taxi and hired-car rides on my journeys around the world. None are as initially hair-raising as they are in India. A year ago, in Punjab, the apparent two-lane highway was most often treated as an unofficial four-lane road. Cars, trucks, and buses, side by side heading east, side by side heading west, careening toward each other, weaving in and out of their lanes, horns blasting. Along the shoulders cows and dogs and goats and kids and adults and bicyclists and oxcarts and horse-drawn wagons trudged in both directions.

To leave the traffic lanes for any reason was to invite serious injuries, or deaths of animals and people. Not to get out of the way of onrushing vehicles coming your way while traveling in the traffic lanes was to invite your own serious injury or death. After a time you just get forced to become accustomed to the pandemonium, or you exist as an emotional wreck.

So it was in mid-January, when I returned for my third trip to India, and realized I’d grown accustomed. I jumped into a cab at Delhi International and swung off into evening rush hour traffic. The driver weaved across lanes, bolted by slower traffic, squeezed through impossibly small openings between diesel buses and bigger diesel trucks. He sped with reckless velocity, all to reach my hotel some five kilometers distance.

At the end, the last half-kilometer, the driver turned left onto a choked boulevard and headed east against three lanes of oncoming traffic. Doing so meant avoiding a two-kilometer roundabout and service road, and more traffic. We even made our way through a 200-person wedding party on foot that was all aflutter with the sounds of drums and trumpets and cymbals and flourescent spotlights. Nobody, not any person in the wedding party, nor any of the oncoming drivers, cared. Not a horn sounded. Not a word of protest was uttered. I arrived at the hotel entrance heading in the wrong direction. I thanked my driver. Tipped him well for his skill. Marveled at my own comfort and ease. And thought — TII. This is India.

Eating and drinking in different places in the same hotel — In Guwahati, a big city in Northeast India and the capital of Assam, I encountered unusual strictures involving food and beer. The hotel where I stayed, in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a talented Indian photographer, had a fine vegetarian restaurant on the first floor, and a small bar on the second. We ordered dinner and asked for the beer and wine menu. No, we were told. No alcohol is served in the restaurant, only in the bar. But typically the bar doesn’t serve major meals, only snack foods. What to do? We ordered from the restaurant and then went upstairs to the bar. Explaining the situation, we asked whether we could eat our fine vegetarian meal in the bar. No problem, we were told. Dinner will be served straight away. TII. This is India.

India’s Internet is terrible — I hate paying for Internet service as an extra in western hotels. I see it as an affront, a gouging. I almost never stay in hotels in the US or Europe that charge extra for Internet.

I’m not nearly as unwilling in India. As a journalist wedded to the information gathering, communication-enhancing power of the Internet, encountering lousy service or no Web connection at all makes me jittery, like drinking too much coffee at night. India has terrible Internet connections. I still look for free Web privileges in Indian hotels, but I’ll pay handsomely for good Web connections, which are rare. That’s why I can recommend without hesitation the Highwinds Guest House in Shillong, which is reasonably priced, and has comfortable rooms, terrific service, good food, and a very strong, reliable, and free Internet connection. Surf’s up.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

India is mesmerized by its mega fauna, its top-of-the-food pyramid wild species — After three trips to India, three trips that take a veteran environmental journalist through the heart of a big nation’s water supply, energy production, and food harvesting infrastructure, it’s not hard to make the case that there’s scarce oversight of India’s natural resources. Except one category. The country’s big beautiful wild cats, elephants, surviving Indian rhinoceroses, and other beasts of the forest.

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Unregulated sand mining along Meghalaya’s river banks turns streams yellow. Photo/Keith Schneider

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