Category Archives: glass-half-full

news that is optimistic, or at least not bad

More good news from the Earth Summit, despite overall failure

Clearly, no major milestones toward sustainable development came out of the three-day Earth Summit in Rio: no binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions, no treaty, no pledges of monetary support by rich nations to enable developing countries to industrialize through green energy–and only a weak, non-binding agreement to end fossil-fuel subsidies. But there are several positive signs that people aren’t waiting for governments to tame rapacious corporations or act sensibly in time to save the Earth. (The stated goal of Rio+20 was sustainable development, although slowing global warming by reducing carbon emissions was the crucial objective.)

To go with two recent posts about action taken beyond the framework of a global treaty and beyond Rio+20 at the grass-roots level, here is news about a coalition of 16 nations including the US working to combat short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) such as black carbon, soot, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. As reported in Climate Progress, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition has in just four months developed a model of international cooperation to tackle SLCPs using existing solutions. The group claims to be on track to cut cut the rate of global warming in half in the short term. (SLCPs are short-lived but potent, so the effect of shutting them off is dramatic.) This bodes well for the health of people as well as of the Earth, because SLCPs cause respiratory disease and premature death of millions each year, and they cause crop losses as well as Arctic ice to melt. See my post of a few months back that presented two perspectives on whether reducing SLCPs such as black carbon from cookstoves was the way to go or if focusing on this goal  would mean neglecting the longer-lasting pollutant, carbon dioxide. Entitled “Don’t let good news on one climate-change front cause neglect of the main chance” this post quoted from a summary that asked, “Should we fight soot instead of CO2?” If you don’t want to go back to the archive, the answer is, “it’s not a choice–we must fight both.”

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Solutions to climate change must come from us

A June 22 New York Times op-ed by the leaders of two environmental organizations signals a recent shift in attitude: we can plainly not count on global leaders to make binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions. As their title reads, “We Have Met the Solution and It  Is Us.” Frances Beinecke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Trip Van Noppen is president of Earthjustice. (I love their slogan: “Because the Earth needs a good lawyer.”) In brief, they argue that action must come from the grass roots, and the good news is, it already has started. They point to announcements and proclamations related to the summit, which 50,000 people attended and blogged, tweeted, and reported about to thousands more, about what countries are doing now without a UN document: “World development banks agreed to invest in a cleaner transportation network. . . . Developing countries agreed to phase out incandescent light bulbs. Australia, Mexico and other coastal countries committed to protecting their irreplaceable seas.”

The writers insist that despite a meaningful agreement and watered-down proclamations issuing from Rio, the Earth Summit was not a failure but rather “a catalyst. It is the starting point for change, not the finish line.” They call for actions on the collective level, of course–to “force our government leaders and our corporations to do what is right for our planet and its resources,” to implement commitments they have made at Rio and elsewhere, and then to” hold them accountable when they don’t”–but also for each one of us to engage.

As they say, “Individually, we must be efficient with the energy and the natural resources we consume and be ever cognizant of what the decisions we make today will mean for our children’s planet tomorrow.” I will follow with a series of posts outlining the many steps each of us can take to make a difference, to be part of the global grass-roots movement for change that will solve this problem. I’ll feature books and websites, and more reports of changes that are making a difference, such as my earlier post on the growth of wind and solar as alternative energy sources.

Good news as Rio+20 begins

Most of the news from the global summit is grim indeed, as most of the pledges countries made at the first Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro two decades ago have not been kept. But here’s some good news from the New York Times–an op-ed by a Swedish energy specialist and two economists at the Environmental Defense Fund. They believe that “the seeds of an energy revolution are being sown,” noting that solar and wind energy are developing faster than anyone predicted. They don’t downplay the challenge, given the even faster rise in fossil fuels. They call for a price or cap on carbon emissions and for subsidies to go to renewables such as solar energy.

As reasons to be optimistic by Rio + 30, the writers point to the European Union’s cap on carbon pollution, a cap-and-trade system in 7 cities in China (including Beijing), India’s coal tax, Australia’s tax on carbon, and South Korea’s direct carbon cap. It’s not happening just in other countries; they close their list of innovative entities with California, which “is readying America’s first comprehensive cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, combined with direct subsidies like its successful Solar Initiative.”

Earth on the brink

It has taken me awhile to figure out how to call attention to some really scary climate news while keeping to my goal of publishing posts that are 50 percent positive. Some news, such as the record high temperatures across the US this spring, I can balance with a good-news story: the US has cut its carbon emissions significantly and is on track to hit President Obama’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution between 2005 and 2020 by 17 percent. But in the case of the June 6 paper published in Nature warning that Earth may be fast approaching a tipping-point, a shift to a much-less-hospitable ecosystem, it takes work to be optimistic. And so I follow the lead author of the study in viewing the warning itself as good news. As Anthony Barnosky, a paleoecologist, told an interviewer from Wired, “There have been big, planetary shifts before.” The difference is, we know that one is imminent. Unlike us, “the dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”

The study, in which 22 scientists warn of impending and irrevocable major changes in the biosphere, is behind a paywall, but summaries abound in blogs. I recommend starting with David Roberts’ post on Grist or the Wired write-up, or one of the few front-page news stories, in the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because Barnosky is from nearby UC Berkeley). Most accounts refer to a tipping point for Earth, but the paper itself uses the term “status shift”–an irreversible transition of an ecological system from one state to another. Many such transitions are localized, but there have been global ones, such as the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago. It’s not just the warming of the planet that is leading to a status shift, say the scientists; it’s the explosion of population, which means ever-more resources for the extra billions to consume. More people means habitat destruction, the disappearance of plant and animal species, over-exploitation of energy resources, and more carbon emissions, producing more warming.

Here’s a video of lead author Anthony Barnosky, of UC Berkeley, on the findings:

James H. Brown, a macroecologist who is one of the authors, is quoted in the Times‘s Green blog as saying,  “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.” How we can gently deflate the bubble is what the commentators explore in the posts. Common to all the scenarios for avoiding the brink are the need to dramatically slow population growth,  get off fossil fuels and onto alternative forms of energy, develop more efficient food production, and practice better ecosystem management.

The analysis includes reaction from climate scientists with different perspectives, such as those who would greatly expand the time frame of these changes (the paper warns that they may occur within a few generations),  To keep away from what would tip this blog toward doom and gloom I seized on the judgment of those who say this shift is neither imminent nor inevitable, which echoes Barnosky’s belief expressed in the video and in interviews that humanity can pull together and avoid the doomsday scenario. In an interview with the Green blog’s Justin Gillis, Barnosky pointed out that “while many species are threatened directly and indirectly by human activity, the number actually driven extinct in the last 200 years is estimated to be only 1 to 2 percent of all species on earth. ‘We still have almost all the species that we regard as valuable out there to be saved. . . . We as people have it in our power to do that.’”

I’ll give the final word in this post to  David Roberts, in a June 11 post in Grist, who stated the goal in larger terms–namely, that we have to conceive of ourselves as global citizens, not just as members of a family, or a tribe, as  Thunder or Heat fans. Even thinking of ourselves as North Americans isn’t  enough. We are “those who live on Earth”; our fellow tribe members are all human beings.  Only in this way will we be able to “envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.” By this, I take him to mean we ought to go beyond technological fixes like geoengineering, which has recently become a hot topic. More about this in upcoming posts.

Poll Shows Americans Are Taking Climate Change Seriously

The New York Times reported April 17 on a new poll showing an uptick in the number of people who are connecting the dots between extreme weather events and global warming. That’s good news, because more Americans may be willing to join the mass movement spearheaded by 350.org to put pressure on leaders to take dramatic action to slow carbon emissions, the main cause of climate change. Connect the Dots just happens to be the motto for 350.org’s next international day of action,  May 5, Climate Impacts Day, designed to call attention to the link between weather extremes and climate change. Sign up for an action near you or start one in your community. The NYT article, with a great photo of one of last week’s tornadoes, is here; if you want to read just a summary, go to the 350.org  blog.

Can we win arguments with climate deniers?

Should we make the effort to counter those who flat-out deny the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming? David Roberts at Grist thinks it’s a waste of time to try to persuade climate-change contrarians; but take heart, he says. They will die off, and sooner rather than later, given their age. He cites the effect of “cohort reduction“: social change comes about when leaders of an organization, culture, or profession give way to those in the next generation who have different beliefs and values and new frameworks of thought. Because the deniers are for the most part older white conservative men, this is the best hope for those of us who recognize how close the world is to the climate tipping point. He notes,  “People rarely change their minds, especially about matters core to ideology and identity. But they do die!”

Despite the provocative headline and opening gambit, Roberts knows that we can’t wait for this cohort to be replaced. They can do too much damage, as witnessed by the leaked plans of the nonprofit group the Heartland Institute to undermine teaching about global warming in public schools. If the group’s plans to insert any part of this body of non-evidence and pseudo-science into the curriculum succeeded and climate change was discredited, the aging cohort’s denialism would live on after their demise, just as science educators still have to fight attempts to require the teaching of the unscientific theory of creationism.

There’s no time to waste while waiting for the shift to happen through attrition, especially given the funding available to the deniers and the dysfunctional Congress that supports their cause. Roberts recommends several actions climate hawks should take: ratchet up the intensity of argument, build political coalitions, organize those who have shown they “get” climate change,  and don’t spend any effort on arguing with a group “unmoored from reality.” (Roberts describes in more detail how we can  mitigate the damage done by these contrarians in a 2011 Grist post.)

To this I’ll add the opportunities for the non-scientists among us to become knowledgeable about climate change through films and DVDs, books and blogs, and courses like Open Climate 101, a course taught at the University of Chicago by David Archer that the university has made available on line for free. Watch a video lecture and read a sample chapter from his text at the Dot Earth blog; then go to the course website to register for free.

Don’t let good news on one climate-change front cause neglect of the main chance

It’s probably human nature to seize on stories that provide even a glimmer of hope to counter the relentless warnings about the short time we have to act on prevent irreversible climate change. No wonder news accounts of a new study in Science suggesting how to cut warming in the near term buoyed our spirits with rosy headlines like “Climate Proposal Puts Practicality ahead of Sacrifice” in the Times (January 17) and  “Groundbreaking New Study Shows How to Reduce Near-Term Global Warming” over a post by Andrew Freedman on Climate Change (January 12). Besides, in the journal scientists, led by NASA researcher Drew Shindell, not policymakers, told us how to seize the moment by cutting the amount of methane and black carbon (aka “soot”) spewed into the atmosphere. Both are short-lived pollutants, and it is estimated that they account for about half of the warming the earth has experienced so far. The good news is clear. According to Freedman, “Shindell and his colleagues found that the 14 emissions reduction actions they zeroed in on would be relatively cheap, and can be implemented with existing technologies.”

There is a potential downside to the report, however, or rather to seizing on its good news as an answer to our problems. It sounds like we can buy some time, but that’s not the case, according to Lou Grinzo on Planet 3.0; it’s telling that the headline to his post ends in a question mark: “A shortcut to restraining climate change?” Grinzo cautions that the Times news story put too optimistic a face on the study and that although Freedman’s headline sounds pie-in-the sky as well, his post emphasizes the need to do both: reduce CO2 and the shorter-lived gases. (Burning soot-producing fuels such as wood and dung in developing countries causes many health problems, providing another incentive to  eliminate that contribution to warming.) For example, Freedman quotes the lead researcher as saying, “It would be a bad thing if this were a substitute for action on CO2.”

Grinzo notes that even though the solutions to methane and black carbon seem practical, they will not be put into place without resistance,  political and economic as well as practical. While we can tackle the leaks from natural gas lines, mines, and landfills, what about the significant  amounts of methane emitted by the agriculture industry? As he says, “Enteric fermentation (i.e., farm animal belches and flatulence), manure management, and wastewater treatment all present challenging scenarios, to put it mildly.”

Still, I’ll end on a glass-half-full note, with Freedman’s last paragraph and a couple of links: “Given the seemingly endless stream of depressing climate change news, some confidence-building measures, such as the ones analyzed in the study, could be exactly what we need.” If you want to help, visit The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) media page to read feature stories about their work to improve efficiency of cookstoves used by billions of people worldwide and donate if you are convinced. Also, see Berkeley researcher Daniel M. Kammen’s paper  on the various stove models that have been tested (with illustrations).

Update (Jan. 29): The Feb. 3 issue of The Week summarized an Agence France-Pressestory in 200 words, with a sunny headline and a photo caption reading “Should we fight soot instead of CO2?”

                        A new strategy to slow climate change


The world could make a big dent in global warming without reducing fossil fuel emissions, says an international team of scientists. Given the strong resistance to curbing fossil fuels, they say, policymakers could buy some time by shifting their focus to reducing emissions of soot and methane. “In the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable, and it brings fast benefits,” Drew Shindell, a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, tells Agence France-Presse. Soot, or black carbon, is produced by unfiltered diesel engines, inefficient boilers, and, in the developing world, cookstoves and kilns. Particularly when it falls on snowpack and ice, soot helps heat the planet by absorbing radiation from the sun. Methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere far more effectively than carbon dioxide does, leaks in great quantities from oil- and gas-producing facilities, coal mines, pipelines, sewage plants, and farm ponds. Using existing technologies, we could capture much of this methane and soot before it reaches the atmosphere, and reduce projected warming by more than a third. As a result, the amount of warming expected by 2050 would be lower by about one degree Fahrenheit. Reducing soot and methane are “things we know how to do and have done,” Shindell says. “We just haven’t done them worldwide.”

This blog would be easier to write if I just linked to sunny digests like this, but it wouldn’t be the whole story, and we should be realistic about what we face.