Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider
One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI, India — There are nearly 1.3 billion people in this swarming democracy, where over 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election last May. A few of them took me aside this week to express surprise at the puzzle that is the American electorate and its national leadership.

It’s easy to see why.

On November 4, despite the most money ever spent in a national election ($US 3.7 billion), just over a third of eligible American voters — the lowest percentage since 1942 — felt it necessary to cast a ballot to influence the country’s management.

But just eight days later, on November 12, the president of the United States reached a momentous accord with the president of China to cap greenhouse gas emissions and do a whole lot more for Mother Earth and its human inhabitants.

THE PACT
Though viewed here in India, and by most observers globally as a an environmental accord, the pact’s six major provisions boil down to a very new international economic development strategy. The agreement sets out two politically arduous but technically achievable goals:

1. Turn major industries, particularly the institutions that supply electricity, into technologically advanced, water-conserving, low-carbon, pollution-avoiding guardians of environmental safety and human well-being.

2. Redesign cities to be much cleaner, much greener, much healthier, and much more efficient users of water, energy, land, and other natural resources.

In effect, the agreement sets out to either convert or overrun skeptics in the carbon-based industries, and their allies in government and finance. It does so by encouraging collaboration between the two largest economies, and the crowd of inventors and practitioners in both countries, to much more quickly put into place new tools, new practices, and especially new markets to contend with radically different ecological and economic conditions.

Temporarily putting aside political realities in both nations, and the skepticism fostered by decades of reporting in the U.S., and more recently in China, the two nations appear to be trying to do something truly significant.

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, and their aides, very clearly recognize the new malevolence displayed by Planet Earth in the 21st century. They seem to be looking at the searing storm of environmental and economic transition square in the eye, and presenting a concerted response that comes straight from the shoulder. The two leaders, in sum, seem resolute about aggregating achievable steps in technology and policy like a wall against danger. The changes the agreement calls for in water conservation, efficiency, clean energy, green equipment and the like, are the bricks. In short, the two leaders are trying to build a new foundation for industries and cities and people to survive and thrive in a perilous ecological age.
Continue reading “Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement”

Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith
China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Earth Pushes Back – Hard”

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. Continue reading “Steps To A Safer World”

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. Continue reading “Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore”

Abu Dhabi Slowly Pursues A Water-Conserving, Cleaner Energy Path

Architects are having a field day designing  the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider
Architects are having a field day designing the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider

ABU DHABI — Just across an expanse of sand and highway, close to this capital city’s airport, lies a collection of modern buildings promoted here as the example incarnate of what’s possible when a nation fueled by oil decides that the supply of its primary natural and economic resource is finite.

It’s a beginning. But just that. A beginning. Masdar City, as it’s called, is a state-sponsored planned development that isn’t yet close to being a city. Masdar City also stretches a few other bounds of credibility in its marketing message.

The collection of structures is promoted as a global showcase of sustainable innovation, a prime international laboratory of energy-efficient construction, water-saving applications, and clean energy development. But other than the big solar array at the development’s entrance it’s hard to tell whether any of those assets actually are in place.

There was no sight of the transit system that is said to exist here to move people in, out, and around the development. Reported to already have attracted “thousands” of workers and residents, the day I visited the dark lobbies and empty retail spaces of the development’s buildings, as well as its shaded walkways, were largely empty. There were more people hovering about Masdar City’s marketing installation at the Abu Dhabi exhibition hall here than were visible in the actual Masdar City.

What is apparent is what Gulf nations do very well – design and construct extravagant and beautiful buildings. In Masdar City’s interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly land use patterns, and its updated Arabic-design cooling system is the interest this nation and its Arabian Gulf neighbors are displaying in diversifying their economies. All of the Gulf nations are talking about and making investments in clean energy development and water conservation practices to 1) improve their standing in the world, and 2) make a sustained run at keeping their energy-stoked civilizations healthy.

The latter is the real challenge — a race against time, demographic trends, petroleum-derived wealth, and climate change.

This bone-dry region is getting dryer. The population is rising, both within the native resident communities and from the tens of millions of contracted migrant laborers from Nepal and China, India, the Philippines, Bengladesh, Eastern Europe, and America who are needed to make the country operate. The growing Gulf economies are sucking up more of their own domestic oil and natural gas reserves to construct and operate the domestic infrastructure, to fuel fleets of cars and planes, and to power the electric plants that keep interiors cool during the summer inferno, and to desalinate the Gulf’s salty water. It takes an ocean of fuel to keep it all running.

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider

Saudi Arabia, which desalinates more water than any other country, produces 6 million cubic meters of fresh water daily from two seas. Saudis burn oil to produce the heat and energy to convert seawater to fresh water. Saudi demand for fresh water is so large and rising so fast that desalination is one of the factors in a worrying calculation made public last year by Gulf nation researchers. Unless some factor changes in Saudi demand trends for energy, water, transportation fuels, and cooling, the world’s largest oil exporter will use so much of its own oil and production capacity to serve its own economy that by the early 2030s it ceases oil exports. American bank economists have reached the same conclusion. Continue reading “Abu Dhabi Slowly Pursues A Water-Conserving, Cleaner Energy Path”