Congratulations to our friends at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative who formally launched their “Global Warning” project yesterday. “Global Warning” is an online project that, in addition to providing in-depth stories on a range of climate change impacts, from the effects on oil pipeline infrastructure and U.S. military bases, to altering disease vectors, has a number of interactive features and multi-media resources that really help get at the complexity of climate change and the potential implications for the United States.
One of my favorite features is the “The Connections” feature. It is a list of 32 terms that the project leaders use to help the user understand the relationship between, say, glacial melt (an environmental impact of climate change) and demographics (an existing sociological trend). Visually, it stands alone as a great example of the complex web of cascading environmental and human impacts of climate change (see the picture above). Yet the feature offers so much more.
As the project leaders note: “The physical climate changes nearly all scientists predict — melting glaciers, longer droughts, stronger storms — are happening in the context of existing problems. Intelligence analysts predict environmental impacts and human reactions will cascade on one another, creating both challenges and opportunities.” For example, the feature draws the connection between Arctic ice melt and the implications for the U.S. military. “Worried about opening shipping lanes and scuffles over mineral rights, the Navy has tasked an admiral with climate change planning, including whether to invest in new equipment such as icebreakers,” a tab displays when the user clicks on “U.S. military impacts.”
In addition to these interactive features (there’s even a game where you are asked to respond to some serious scenarios as either a diplomat, economist, scientist or aid worker), there are well-researched reports on a range of topics. Given that the Arctic is near and dear to us at the Natural Security blog, it is worth highlighting this piece from Jacquelyn Ryan published online by The Washington Post Sunday evening: “As Arctic melts, U.S. ill-positioned to tap resources.” Ryan addresses some of the many challenges the United States has to face in preparing for a melting Arctic, including inadequate infrastructure for the U.S. Coast Guard to have a sustained presence in the Arctic and that fact that the United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, “The only international treaty that applies to the Arctic,” Ryan reports.
Good issues to pick up, not just for my love of magazine names that are easy to abbreviate when I don’t have much time to type.
This has been a strange year for natural disasters. On December 19, 2010, The Washington Post published a report that captured the events of the last year, from quakes, floods to blizzards. “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year,” Craig Fugate, administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the Post. But you don’t need to tell me. I have been spending the holidays in California where experts suggested that we experienced what some say is a 10-year rain storm, others a 100-year storm, that dropped more than fourteen inches of rain and snow in parts of California. With all this strangeness that’s been going on, what better time than to share some thoughts from one of my reads, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.
Forecast is not your typical climate change book. Many climate change-related books I read take the reader on a tour of the science and provide detailed scientific analysis on the physical impacts that the world is experiencing as a result of climate change. Forecast is much different. What author Stephan Faris does instead is translate the scientific impacts of climate change into the sociological consequences that people experience in these affected areas. And he does it, quite poignantly, through his on the ground reporting and telling of individual stories of those experiencing climate change already. As Faris explains to the reader, “This book is about these types of impacts, the rolling series of events that reach beyond the environment and the weather to shape the way we live.”
My biggest worry for Cancun concerned an emerging narrative that fully international negotiations on climate change are no longer worth it. I've heard more and more frequently from U.S. and European climate change analysts that a post-Kyoto treaty is hopeless, that so many countries can't possibly agree on how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Best then that we don't even try.
The United Nations climate change negotiations wrapped up after a late night session Friday that took deliberations into the early hours Saturday morning. John Broder, writing for The New York Times on Saturday, had a pithy description to sum up the Cancun conference: it “began with modest aims and ended early Saturday with modest achievements.”
Indeed, there were modest achievements made with the “Cancun Agreements,” from an agreement to setup a new fund to help the world’s poorest nations adapt to climate change, research centers that will facilitate the transfer of green energy technology, to a framework that will help provide compensation for forest preservation. Of course, one of the most significant achievements perhaps was the fact that there was an outcome at all, a shot in the arm for the UN negotiations process that had been seen as moribund since the failed Copenhagen conference last December. “While the measures adopted here may have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet,” Broder wrote in the Times on Saturday, “the international process for dealing with the issue got a significant vote of confidence.”
As you know, we have been following the shrewd insights of Alex Stark, formerly of the Natural Security blog, who has been covering the Cancun UN climate negotiations in person as part of the Adopt a Negotiator program, part of the Global Campaign for Climate Action. Alex was in Tianjin, China for the UN negotiations in October, and has been reporting on the Cancun proceedings throughout the week through her blog and via Twitter. Here is Alex’s latest post:
Negotiators have been working feverishly over the past several days trying to prepare an unbracketed negotiating text with several options clearly outlined on the most contentious issues. The text will be turned over to high-level ministers to resolve these remaining issues by Friday. On Monday and Tuesday, negotiators worked behind closed doors in small groups and bilateral discussions on the different issues, passing on a finalized version of their piece of the text to the chairs of the KP (Kyoto Protocol) and LCA (Long-term Cooperative Action) tracks, who worked overnight to pull together two coherent texts to present to the entire Conference of the Parties in an informal stocktaking session this morning. The COP insiders daily Earth Negotiations Bulletin newsletter reports that “the mood remained constructive in some informals groups, while in the others, some parties reported ‘a complete lack of progress.’”
Where do the issues stand now in the LCA text, what contentious problems remain and where is the United States in all of this?
We are gearing up for CNAS’s annual holiday party today, so I’m going to be brief with the post this morning. Will and I have had a particularly diplomacy- and development-focused few days this week, compared to our more frequent focus on the other of the 3 D’s. Yesterday, we were lucky enough to hold a discussion at USAID on our June 2010 report Sustaining Security with a room of development experts, foreign service officers, and NGO representatives.
Strong leadership on climate change is hard to come by, especially at UN climate negotiations. The United States is too often undermined by the lack of domestic legislation on energy and climate change that would give the U.S. delegation the credibility it needs to persuade states such as China to act. China meanwhile is primarily concerned with sustaining strong economic growth in order to meet living standards for a growing population; so China is not willing to lead unless it gets a big carrot.
But that is not to say that there aren’t states that strongly push for an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are, they just don’t have much to lose with an agreement; indeed, they’re often developing countries that are really at risk due to climate change. In order for a state to secure the credibility it needs to rally other states to action, it has to be willing to make sacrifices in the short term; simply, it has to have something to lose. And that is what makes Mexico such an interesting state to watch during this week’s Cancun conference.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Mexico is seeking a leadership role in climate policy, in large part due to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who apparently is a “climate wonk.” Unlike other developing countries, Mexico has more credibility which helps make it a potentially stronger leader on climate policy: Mexico is a major oil producer, ranked seventh in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Mexico is also the 14th largest economy in the world and “contributes between 1.5 and 3 percent of global [greenhouse gas] emissions, according to The Post. With oil revenues generating approximately 40 percent of Mexico’s state expenditures, it has some skin the game if an international climate agreement means that Mexico’s oil revenues could shrink in the short term as countries make a transition to alternative fuels. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping Mexico.
International climate change negotiators are in Cancun, Mexico today for the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. There has been quiet speculation about what to expect from Cancun, with markedly less attention drawn to the conference than last year’s Copenhagen Conference, in part because organizers for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have been trying to manage expectations better by minimizing the prospects that international negotiators will settle on a binding treaty to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read a piece Christine and I wrote for World Politics Review outlining what we think you should watch for in Cancun this week, here. [Subscription required]) Nevertheless, there are some worthy climate change-related news items from this past weekend that may directly or indirectly inform your thinking about what to expect from Cancun.
To begin, The New York Times ran a story on Friday on efforts in Norfolk, Virginia to adapt to rising sea level. Leslie Kaufman, reporting for The Times, writes:
As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming. But Norfolk is worse off. Situated just west of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, it is bordered on three sides by water, including several rivers, like the Lafayette, that are actually long tidal streams that feed into the bay and eventually the ocean. Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.
As Kaufman reports, residents of the Larchmont Neighborhood in Norfolk have already started to adapt to sea level rise, successfully lobbying the local government to invest 1.25 million dollars to raise a small stretch of street by 18 inches and to change the angle of the storm drains so that water does not backup into the street. Yet, as Kaufman notes, “it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion.” Indeed, “In the short run, the city’s goal is just to pick its flood-mitigation projects more strategically,” Kaufman reports, rather than commit resources to these piecemeal projects.