Thursday, December 31, 2009

" place on the global balance sheet for ecosystems and civilisation"

Sadly, coal may have been the biggest winner coming out of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. With governments failing miserably to demonstrate leadership in forging our energy future, coal industry leaders have slipped into to fill the vacuum.

Don't hold your breath waiting for courage or vision from them. (GW)

Investing in coal is dysfunctional

By Jeremy Leggett
The Guardian
December 30, 2009

The acid test of the Copenhagen climate change summit was always going to be coal. Had governments managed to come up with a meaningful agreement, those who seek to continue burning coal would have faced significant risk that they would be spending their money on what investors call "strandable" assets – assets that become obsolete and therefore worthless. And for their part, financial institutions would have had to think twice whether they should keep pouring billions of dollars into new coal-fired electricity generation, seeking short-term returns while knowingly fuelling future climate ruin that is not costed in today's books.

But there was no meaningful agreement. And so we see the first in the queue to foist coal horrors upon us already knocking at the door. Since Copenhagen, E.ON has announced that any further emissions cuts by the company will depend on governments making progress in 2010 in the climate negotiations. E.ON and Centrica have both said they are less likely to build coal plants attempting carbon capture and storage. We can expect to see similar sentiments from most of the other big energy companies. Enlightened business leadership ahead of legislation is not their bag. More plans for unsequestered coal, without trapping and burying the carbon dioxide, will be the best we can expect.

To be fair to the power companies, the fault is wider. Most investors expect this behaviour of them. Most banks, insurance companies and pension funds are happy, as things stand, to continue investing in coal.

When it comes to the London Stock Exchange, they will have their first major chance soon. The largest Russian steam coal producer is eyeing an initial public offering in London during the first half of 2010. Suek, owned by two oligarchs, is worth $8-9bn (£5-6bn), and will be floating as many as a quarter of its shares. As one anonymous banker put it to Reuters: "There haven't been any good opportunities in this sector for a long time, and the sector is on its way up, so therefore this will be a positive story."

Of course, at the same time, those buying shares will be fuelling long-term wealth destruction – let me not be so base as to mention killing people to boot, let's stick to the money – by stoking climate change. This is the bottom line with the dysfunctional form of capitalism we have allowed to evolve. And the most galling thing is this: the bonus cultists are doing it, in large part, with our money.

A pension fund manager invests billions built up from tiny parcels of the peoples' pension contributions. He is rewarded, like everyone else in the temples of finance, on the basis of short-term returns. That the pension holder might retire into a world that is increasingly unliveable because of the actions of his fund manager features nowhere in any bonus calculation.

Hugo Chávez gloatingly told the Copenhagen summit that capitalism is to blame for climate change. He has more than half a point. After this failure of a summit many leaders had cast as a last-chance saloon, surely now we have to think hard about capitalism in the form we have allowed it to evolve.

The fact is that as things stand – to use the parlance of the investment bankers who will scrabble to win the Russian coal business and the pension fund managers who will line up to invest in the listing – there is no place on the global balance sheet for the assets most relevant to the survival of economies: ecosystems and civilisation. There is plenty of space for spectres they label as assets while shovelling the attendant megarisks off the books. That is the real bottom line.

Unless, that is, we can mobilise enough people-power, on enough fronts, for the citizenry to turn around the course of a war in which our leaders are currently displaying toothless impotence. The listing by Suek, and the role of our money it, might be a good place to start.

Any company investing in that IPO is a company that I will no longer bank or insure with. And any pension fund investing in it is one that I will encourage all my friends to switch their pension out of.

Jeremy Leggett,, set up his company, Solarcentury, to fight climate change.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stewart Brand's 'Ecopragmatist Manifesto'

Stewart Brand's work has had a tremendous impact on my life. I am the proud owner of my original copies of the Whole Earth Catalog, The Last Whole Earth Catalog and The Whole Earth Epilog. I also still have every issue of CoEvolution Quarterly issued from 1974-1985.

Stewart's writing, thinking and projects were in the vanguard of the environmental movement dating back to before the first Earth Day. However, recently he has become a pariah within the environmental community. They consider him (along with James Lovelock) a traitor because of his support for, among other things, nuclear energy, geoengineering and genetic engineering.

Brand says he's merely an ecopragmatist. (GW)

Stewart Brand’s Strange Trip: Whole Earth to Nuclear Power

When the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog embraces nuclear power, genetically engineered crops, and geoengineering schemes to cool the planet, you know things have changed in the environmental movement. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Stewart Brand explains how the passage of four decades — and the advent of global warming — have shifted his thinking about what it means to be green.

By Todd Woody

Yale Environment 360
December 22, 2009

Stewart Brand helped shape the environmental consciousness of the 1960s and ‘70s with his Whole Earth Catalog, which became a bible of the counterculture and the back-to-the-land movement. An eclectic compendium of information and “tools” for innovative, environmentally friendly living, the Whole Earth Catalog reflected Brand’s ecological and technological interests, foreshadowing the rise of the San Francisco Bay Area’s computer and green cultures.

In the 1970s, Brand — a Stanford-trained biologist — started CoEvolutionary Quarterly to continue his exploration of environmental issues and the rise of new technologies like the personal computer and genetic engineering. In between writing books on computing and space colonies, Brand served as an advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown. In the early 1980s, Brand co-founded The WELL — the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link — an early electronic community in the pre-Internet days with Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who later become the first director of Google’s philanthropic arm.

In recent years, Brand, 71, has begun to rethink his earlier opposition to nuclear power and has embraced genetic engineering, geoengineering of the earth’s climate system, and other issues that were anathema to the traditional environmental movement. This evolution of his thinking has led to his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

In it, Brand calls for the rapid deployment of a new generation of nuclear power plants to combat global warming, arguing that technological advances have made nuclear energy safer and any potential danger from nuclear waste pales compared to the damage inflicted by burning coal.

“The air pollution from coal burning is estimated to cause 30,000 deaths a year from lung disease in the United States, and 350,000 a year in China,” writes Brand. “A 1-gigawatt coal plant burns three million tons of fuel a year and produces seven million tons of CO2, all of which immediately goes into everyone’s atmosphere, where no one can control it, and no one knows what it’s really up to.”

Likewise, he says, environmentalists are misguided in their long-standing opposition to the genetic engineering of crops to increase yields and reduce pesticide use. In a move sure to rankle the local-food movement, Brand says organic farmers should also embrace GE crops.

Brand argues that humans have been reshaping the natural environment for millennia and thus should start exploring planet-wide technological fixes to the pending catastrophe of climate change, everything from injecting sulfates into the atmosphere to constructing a gigantic space shield to block solar radiation. And if the Whole Earth Catalog catered to the anti-urbanists of the 1960s, Brand now finds ecological salvation in the world’s mega-cities and their sprawling slums as “concentrators of efficiency and innovation.”

Brand lives on a converted tugboat in Sausalito, Calif., with his wife Ryan Phelan, founder of DNA Direct, a genetic testing service. Environmental journalist Todd Woody met Brand in his book-lined office — located nearby in a beached fishing boat on the Sausalito waterfront — and conducted the following interview for Yale Environment 360.

Yale Environment 360: Who did you write this book for?

Stewart Brand: For two versions of environmentalists — the ones who already know their environmentalism and the ones who are finding out their environmentalism because of climate change.

An assertion I make in the first chapter is that in light of climate change everybody’s an environmentalist. And in light of climate change people who already know they’re environmentalists are facing a changed situation. And I’m trying to help adjust the course in light of the situation and the technologies that are emerging.

e360: Is the environmental movement ideologically stuck in the 1970s?

Brand: It’s moved on in some areas. The environmental movement used to hate cities and is now halfway toward loving cities. The Sierra Club has been very active in supporting compactness in cities. Environmentalists don’t call themselves ecologists any more, and that’s good.

e360: Why is that good?

Brand: It’s good because most weren’t, and most people who said they were part of the ecology movement wouldn’t know one trophic level from another, or what a trophic level is, or what a food web is, or why a niche is a niche, or much less why horizontal transgenic gene transfer is normal rather than unnatural. So not being called ecologists is fine.

e360: Do you see a generational dividing line on nuclear power?

Brand: I’m somewhat speculating that there is a generation gap there. I think it’s probably much stronger with genetic engineering. There is no iGEM [the undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine synthetic biology competition] for grownups as far as I know. I take that as pretty much a good sign because geneticists and microbiologists are going to just own so much of this century.

e360: For anyone who’s younger than 35, nuclear power has not been an issue because there have been no new nuclear power plants built in this country for decades.

Brand: Well, that’s my surmise. What one would want to look at is some young anti-nuclear person, do they say Chernobyl? Do they say Three Mile Island? I don’t think they say Hiroshima or Nagasaki because that’s so far in the past. Even for me.

e360: One of the main arguments against nuclear is economic — it’s not viable in the marketplace. How much should the market play in pushing these technologies, versus the government?

Brand: It’s a strange kind of desperate argument. Probably that question applies most in the developing world where coal really is king, is the cheapest. If the market rules, coal wins almost everywhere. I’ve been saying, and I say in the book, that we have to get used to the idea that there’s a very serious role for the government here, basically to make coal expensive, and let the rest fight it out.

It’s not an issue in France and that’s why they have 80 percent nuclear. A bit of arithmetic I haven’t seen done yet is, if the U.S. were 80 percent nuclear, how many gigatons of carbon dioxide would not be in the atmosphere? We could have done that.

We didn’t for reasons very different than France. France was shattered by [the] 1973 [Arab oil embargo] and didn’t have their own coal, didn’t have their own oil. To get some energy independence, not because of anything environmental, they just went dead at it. They respect engineers in France way more than we do here and made the right thing happen and now have a huge export industry with selling energy to everybody in Europe, including all the green countries.

e360: NPR recently interviewed an Obama administration official on whether nuclear power should be an option to fight global warming. That official tried very hard to avoid even saying the word nuclear.

Brand: It’s a hot-button issue. Whether I raise it or not in talks, that’s what people want to talk about. What’s interesting to me, I’m going to go on book tour in England in January. England has just committed to ten new reactors. They’re tired of buying two gigawatts of nuclear power from France, among other things.

Frankly, my book is getting more uptake in England — even though it hasn’t come out there yet — than here. So I’m not sure if it’s my name or the subject or if they’re okay with nuclear, or what’s going on.

e360:: You were an advisor to Jerry Brown when he was governor and anti-nuclear sentiment was at its peak. If Jerry Brown becomes governor again do you see changes in policy?

Brand: We’ve talked about it. He hasn’t said, “Tell me more.” Back in the ‘70s when he first got into office, I said space is actually pretty interesting. Fifty percent of space technology comes from California. He was interested. We hired [astronaut] Rusty Schweiker, he did Space Day, he went to the first shuttle launch and landing. So he became Governor Moonbeam.

I haven’t heard him go that far on nuclear. I think it is still a third rail for all these guys. And I suppose part of what I’m trying to do is to take the charge off the rail.

e360: You don’t talk much about renewable energy in your book.

Brand: I think its very well covered so I don’t have much to add there other than nod, nod, nod, so let’s now talk about something I think I have some fresher information on.

But I think the main point I’m making with this book — and that’s why there’s two chapters about squatter cities and what’s going on in the cities and urbanization and so on — is that five out of six people don’t live in the developed world that has all this excess energy use.

They’re living much closer to the bone, and the greenest people in the world probably are the squatters in the slums of the world — a billion people. How lucky we are that they’re there, they’re getting out of poverty, they’re green as hell but they would really like electricity 24/7 and fresh water and sanitation and some other things that are going to involve more energy use. That’s either coal or nuclear as far as I can tell.

Whether we go to nuclear or not is not as important as whether they do. Or something else that is clean, scalable, and constant.

e360: What about solar?

Brand: My hope, frankly, was space solar because it’s 24/7. [California entrepreneur] Elon Musk flattened my ear on this subject. He said, “Look I do SpaceX so I know a lot about space, I do SolarCity so I know a lot about solar. I’m trying to kill anybody’s sense that there’s some realistic way to do ‘space solar.’”

He said even if you could get your solar collectors into orbit for free it still wouldn’t work. The costs and difficulties of beaming down electricity as microwaves with antennas on the ground don’t work out. For the time being, I’m persuaded by Elon on the matter.

e360: Nuclear power plants consume an incredible amount of water. Is that a concern?

Brand: Yep, water is an issue everywhere and every how. The tech I’d like to see is something more direct. That’s all hand wringing at this point. I don’t know anyone who has figured out how to turn heat into electricity without water.

e360: What has been the reaction to your proposals on genetic engineering and food?

Brand: Well, I’m a little surprised that Michael Pollan hasn’t come over because he has busted the industrialization of organic food.

The local growing of basically artisanal food is absolutely fantastic in a country where the basic nutrition problem is obesity. That’s not the major nutrition problem in much or most of the world. What they need is volume, which is the very thing the Green Revolution spoke to and answered. The second Green Revolution is the next set of good technology in agriculture. Not only green in the sense the first one was — higher yield, lower cost, cheaper food, better distribution and all that — but also green ecologically, environmentally green in terms of climate.

Kind of working backward to what the world wants and needs, and what the climate wants and needs, and ecology wants and needs, then genetic engineering looks like a very important tool.

e360: A theme running through the book is that the rest of the world has a different perspective on nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Brand: We tend to be north-centric, developed-centric. China is going full bore on nuclear. I’ve heard numbers as high as they want to build 400 reactors. And no doubt there will be problems. But there’s problems with dams, there’s problems with all these things. I think that’s the engineering essence I’m trying to have Greens become comfortable with.

When you’re trying to design solutions, you really, really have to get used to the idea of tradeoffs, risk balancing, short-term versus long-term. All this stuff that engineers are comfortable with.

I don’t want the romantic stuff to go away. I don’t want people to stop loving nature or loving some experience they’ve had with nature. They can if they want. Just add this other stuff. And so the line about the romantic loves the tree, but not its genome, and the scientist loves both.

e360: One of your more controversial chapters is on geoengineering, which strikes a lot of people, including scientists, as crazy and dangerous.

Brand: That must be next year’s controversy. I expected some pushback on that one. And I haven’t encountered it at all. Not in person, not in print. But it clearly wants and needs to be there. I think there’s all kinds of things to say.

Actually, the strongest pushback and non-embrace was in Al Gore’s new book. It’s a sentence in which he says we’ve done enough experimentation with the planet, that geoengineering is experimentation with the planet we do not need to do. He goes on about biochar [transforming organic waste into a charcoal-like fertilizer], as he should, but doesn’t think or treat that as geoengineering. I do. I think that kind of effort is a form of grass rootsy, and therefore good, geoengineering.

e360: Do you have concerns that support for geoengineering will be used by others as an excuse to carry on with business as usual?

Brand: Well, I don’t want to eliminate business-as-usual as an okay goal. I want to set aside a potential business as usual that ain’t bad. Suppose we had energy that had that quality of way more than we could use or need, and it was clean.

There is another set of people in the environmental movement who are what I’m calling calamatists, who feel that industrial civilization has committed crimes, sins against nature, and retribution is coming and we must repent, reform, and redeem ourselves in light of these terrible crimes and this terrible sin.

The way you can tell if someone is of that mode is to raise this: Suppose we had clean, squanderable energy available, what do you think of that? The ones that have that frame of mind would say that is the worst thing that could happen.

Again, I think that is not a perspective that makes a lot of sense in the developing world. You can go to African peoples and say what do you think of clean, squanderable energy, they would say, “Yes please. How soon?”

e360: Hasn’t cheap energy in this country lead to our sprawling development and other environmental problems?

Brand: Maybe, maybe. But one of the things the new urbanists changed are that suburbs as they came to be designed are boring stupid places to live. It’s not a question of whether you save energy by walking to the market, you sort of save your mind by walking to the market, by being able to bicycle the kids to school. The idea of parents, smart busy adults, having to be chauffeurs for their children has nothing to do with environmental issues at all — it’s just a weird way to live.

I just want that one on the table. Suppose we do get clean, squanderable energy. Is that okay or not okay? One scenario is that it is okay. [Local-food advocate] Alice Waters’ approach to food — artisanal growing of food — is a better approach to growing food. But you need a certain amount of prosperity and density and all these other fun things for that to happen. That is also a product of highly industrialized civilization.

Alice Waters needs a city and in the absence of a city you don’t get Alice Waters or Michael Pollan. The city is a market. It’s a sophisticated market.

e360: Thirty or 40 years ago if you picked up a book advocating these ideas, what would you have thought?

Brand: So 30 to 40 years ago I think I would have said to all the genetic engineering stuff — hot dog! I did say at that time “yes” to solar in space because I was pushing space colonies. The only practical reason that we could think of was that a business model for space colonies was beaming down solar.

Nuclear I would have said, “Bad idea,” and I did. Not actively and overtly. I just went in a somewhat knee-jerk mode and my own mode of long-term thinking at the time that it was too big a penalty to exact from future generations, because of the nuclear waste issue.

I think a lot of this stuff is shifting, and this book is a next-30-years to next-100-years book. Most of the issues we’re dealing with — [like] climate — will be sorted out one way or the other in this century. It’s going to be a thrilling century because so much is in play and so many balls are in the air.

POSTED ON 22 Dec 2009 IN

Todd Woody is a veteran environmental and technology journalist based in California who writes for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Grist and other publications. He previously was a senior editor at Fortune magazine, the assistant managing editor of Business 2.0 magazine and the business editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Design Aikido

It's finally beginning to sink into the heads of scientists, professional planners and government officials that Mother Nature has a pretty good grasp of sustainable design. Our best hope for survival as a species is not to try and demonstrate that we can out-think or overpower her, but to humbly learn from her four billion years of experience.

Flood-plains serve a purpose and Nature will make every effort to ensure that that purpose is served. A recent study by US scientists are taking a cue suggesting a new approach to managing floods. Taking a cue from the Japanese martial art of Aikido they are seeking a "Way of unifying with life energy"

'Back to nature' cuts flood risks

By Mark Kinver
BBC News
December 28, 2009

Reconnecting flood-plains to rivers will help reduce the risk of future flooding, suggest US scientists.

A study by US researchers said allowing these areas to be submerged during storms would reduce the risk of flood damage in nearby urban areas.

Pressure to build new homes has led to many flood-prone areas being developed.

Writing in Science, they said the risks of flooding were likely to increase in the future as a result of climate change and shifts in land use.

"We are advocating very large-scale shifts in land use, "said co-author Jeffrey Opperman, a member of The Nature Conservancy's Global Freshwater Team.

"There is simply no way economically or politically that this could be accomplished by turning large areas of flood-plains into parks," he told the Science podcast.

"What we are proposing in this paper is a way that this strategy can be compatible, and even supportive, with vibrant agricultural economies and private land ownership."

Control infrastructure prevents high flows from entering floodplains, thus diminishing both natural flood storage capacity and the processes that sustain healthy riverside forests (Jeffrey Opperman, The Nature Conservancy)

For example, the authors explained, the flood season and growing season in California did not occur at the same time.

This meant that allowing the land to be submerged by floodwater would not result in a permanent loss of farmland or crops being destroyed.

In their paper, they said that man-made flood management systems, such as levees, also had an ecological impact.

"Control infrastructure prevents high flows from entering flood-plains, thus diminishing both natural flood storage capacity and the processes that sustain healthy riverside forests and wetlands," they observed.

"As a result, flood-plains are among the planet's most threatened ecosystems."

'Ecosystem services'

The reconnection programmes would deliver three benefits, they added:

• Reduce the risk of flooding

• Increase in flood-plain goods and services

• Greater resilience to potential climate change impacts

In other parts of the world, Dr Opperman said that there was a range of agricultural strategies for private landowners that would be compatible with allowing areas to be flooded.

"There are emerging markets for ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and nutrient sequestration," he explained.

"These are services that flood-plains do provide, so with various climate policies there will be a price for carbon."

The researchers cited the Yolo By-pass, in California, US, in their paper as a successful demonstration of the idea they were advocating.

The scheme absorbed 80% of floodwater during heavy storms, they said, protecting the nearby city of Sacramento.

"During a March 1986 flood, the by-pass conveyed [about] 12.5bn cubic metres of water, more than three times the total flood-control storage volume in all Sacramento basin reservoirs.

"Without the by-pass flood-plain, California would need to build massive additional flood-control infrastructure," they observed.

The Yolo by-pass was created back in the 1930s, when a 24,000 hectare flood-plain was reconnected to the Sacramento River.

The scheme was introduced when it became apparent that a "levees only" approach would not offer the required flood protection.

"It's connected in an engineered way, which mean that when the river reaches a certain volume it flows over a weir and enters the flood-plain," Dr Opperman explained.

He added that the scheme also had numerous additional ecological benefits: "In recent decades, people began to notice that this area was a phenomenal habitat for birds.

"In the past 10 years, people recognised that native fish were moving from the river on to the flood-plain, and deriving all of the benefits that fish get from natural flood-plains.

"It was an excellent place for fish to spawn, and for juvenile fish to be reared."

Monday, December 28, 2009

A dream job for "dirtbag" climbers

Many years ago I taught high school at a special facility on Thompson Island -- one of Boston's famous Harbor Islands. A small group of educators and activists developed a curriculum that took an integrated approach to teaching environmental science. A major component of the program was an indoor/outdoor Outward Bound ropes course.

The main purpose of our ropes course was team-building. Some of the students got this. Others wondered why we were wasting time fooling around with something that would be of no practical use to them (the students were all from the inner city).

Little did we know that we were preparing them for jobs in the growing wind energy industry. (GW)

Rise of Wind Turbines Is a Boon for Rope Workers

MAHANOY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Suspended by ropes from the top of a giant wind turbine, two men slowly descended down a long, silvery blade. Then they got to work, and from 150 feet above the ground, the hum of a sander filled the air.

For Matt Touchette and Sequoia Haughey, it was another day at the office.

“Pretty gusty wind,” Mr. Touchette reported over a crackling radio from his bird’s-eye perch.

Rope specialists like Mr. Touchette and Mr. Haughey have long filled a range of niche jobs, like inspecting big dams, cleaning Mount Rushmore and repairing offshore oil platforms. But as wind farms have sprouted across the nation, rope companies have quickly expanded into a new line of work — fixing turbines so they last longer in the elements.

It’s a dream job for rock-climbing types.

Rope Partner, the Santa Cruz, Calif., company that employs Mr. Touchette and Mr. Haughey, was founded in 2001 by an avid climber, Chris Bley, after he learned the ropes, so to speak, from two Germans he met while scaling granite cliffs in Joshua Tree National Park in the 1990s. The Germans were part of a rope-work team that helped wrap the Reichstag, where Germany’s Parliament meets, in fabric as an art installation.

The jobs these days involve inspecting turbines, cleaning them and repairing them, which becomes necessary if a blade is struck by lightning or damaged by ice. The blades are made of fiberglass, and repair jobs may involve taking out the old fiberglass and putting in new material, which then needs to be sanded down for smoothness.

“I was just amazed to think you could actually make a business out of working on ropes,” said Mr. Bley, who occasionally gets recruits from a Santa Cruz rock-climbing gym in which he invested.

At least a handful of small rope companies now work on turbines. Some, like East River Rigging of Brooklyn, are new and do regional rope work of all kinds. Others, like Skala of Reno, Nev., are longtime rope specialists that moved into wind-turbine work when the boom began several years ago. Rope Partner focuses solely on turbines.

Starting a rope company is not easy. Turbine owners and manufacturers generally demand to see an established safety record. Liability and workers’ compensation insurance can be hard to get, and climbers typically need a certain level of certification from the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, a trade group, before they are allowed to work on the turbines.

Igor Stomp, chairman of the communications committee at the society, estimated that the cost of a basic one-day job by two climbers might start at $2,000 — and rise substantially for harder tasks.

From the technicians’ perspective, “it pays well — for dirtbag climbers,” Mr. Haughey said with a laugh.

About half of Rope Partner’s technicians double as recreational climbers, Mr. Bley estimated. Their job, requiring them to fly around the country for projects that can last up to several months, offers an on-and-off lifestyle that allows them to climb or relax during their weeks off.

Even on the job, the workers sometimes cannot get enough of the ropes. At the Pennsylvania site, which is near Hazleton, when it was too rainy or windy to work safely, Mr. Touchette and Mr. Haughey — who between them have conquered El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park — headed off to what Mr. Touchette described as a “scruffy little cliff in the forest” some 25 minutes away, to climb.

On fair weather days, the two men’s first step was to make sure the turbine was turned off, so it would not spin while they were on it, a potentially deadly proposition. Then they carefully organized their gear for the day — mixing chemicals to create a gel coating to treat the blades, assembling snacks and suiting up in helmets and ropes.

After vanishing up the tower, the two climbers appeared as tiny specks at the top of the turbine. Each was secured to the top by two ropes. They let themselves slowly down the blade, which was pointed toward the ground, and got to work. An orange extension cord, over 150 feet long, accompanied them, to power the sander.

Some 300 certified rope specialists like them — or rope access technicians — work on turbines in North America, and that number may triple in three years, according to Mr. Stomp. Already, he said, demand is so acute that his own rope company, WindSwain, has an eight-week waiting list.

Mr. Stomp and others say that no rope expert has been killed or seriously injured on wind turbines. The method is safer and generally cheaper, rope advocates argue, than alternatives like using a crane or a skybucket.

There are dangers, however. This year, a turbine technician for Skala was high up on a turbine when the blade — whose pitch angle was being adjusted with the aid of one of the manufacturers’ technicians — shifted in an unexpected way, according to Chad Shearer, a training manager at Skala. No one was hurt, said Mr. Shearer, who cited a fault in the turbine and said his company complained to the manufacturer.

Standard industrial accidents do happen — Mr. Haughey, for example, once got the tip of his finger caught in a moving part inside a turbine, though he was not on ropes at the time. Workers sometimes drop small untethered items, like bolts.

On the chilly day that they sanded the turbine blade in Pennsylvania, Mr. Touchette and Mr. Haughey dropped nothing, but warned visitors at the base of their turbine to stand upwind, just in case.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What does it really mean to be 'civilized'?

Our views of history and of culture really does depend on whose perspective is being considered. Today's post and the book (that by now I'm sure is no secret that I find compelling) it is based on offer a different take on what it means to be civilized and free.

Timely topics as we prepare to celebrate this holiday season.

Wishing you the happiest of holidays!!(GW)

The mystery of Zomia

In the lawless mountain realms of Asia, a Yale professor finds a case against civilization

By Drake Bennett
Boston Globe
December 6, 2009

Picture a map of the world color-coded to represent not countries, but altitude. In North America, Appalachia would be a long, topographical peninsula between the densely settled Eastern Seaboard and the fertile plains of the Midwest. In South America, the western population centers would be an elevated archipelago above malarial lowlands; in Northern Europe, the Benelux plains and polders would be difficult to discern from the North Sea.

And in southern Asia, stretching from the Vietnamese highlands up into the Tibetan plateau and as far west as Afghanistan, would be a single sprawling mountain realm that is home to more than 100 million people. This is Zomia.

Zomia is a rugged swath of Asia that for 2,000 years has remained culturally aloof from the traditional centers of power and the pull of empires. Its inhabitants, Asia’s “hill people,” have earned a reputation for egalitarianism, insurrection, and independence. Up until the second half of the 20th century, many of the societies there remained nonliterate and supported themselves through trade, smuggling, and Iron-Age practices like slash-and-burn agriculture.

Though never seeing itself as a country apart, this distinctive zone has recently begun to gain broader attention. The historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam coined the name Zomia in 2002, as a way of challenging the continent’s traditional geographical boundaries. And this fall, the Yale political scientist James Scott has published a book making

a far more ambitious argument: Zomia, he says, offers a sort of counter-history of the evolution of human civilization.

In Zomia’s small societies, with their simple technologies, anti-authoritarian tendencies, and oral cultures, Scott sees not a world forgotten by civilization, but one that has been deliberately constructed to keep the state at arm’s length. Zomia’s history, Scott argues, is a rejection of the mighty lowland states that are seen as defining Asia. He calls Zomia a “shatter zone,” a place where people go to escape the raw deal that complex civilization historically has been for those at the bottom: the coerced labor and conscription into military service, the taxation for wars and pharaonic building projects, the epidemic diseases that came with intensive agriculture and animal husbandry.

What Zomia presents, Scott argues in his book “The Art of Not Being Governed,” is nothing less than a refutation of the traditional narrative of steady civilizational progress, in which human life has improved as societies have grown larger and more complex. Instead, for many people through history, Scott argues, civilized life has been a burden and a menace.

“The reason why some people didn’t become civilized, why some people didn’t ‘develop,’ may not be a question of them not having the talent, or being backward and so on, but may be historically produced by their desire to avoid what they saw as the inconveniences of states,” says Scott.

Scott’s anarchist history of Zomia is controversial, both in its claims about the predatory nature of the state and in its portrait of Zomia’s past. Other scholars of Asia - and Southeast Asia in particular - charge him with overgeneralizing about the region, and with seeing political motives in decisions and traditions that in fact have their roots in ecological necessity, happenstance, or even the profit motive.

But Scott, and other scholars of Zomia, are also pressing for a change in how we see the political world. In looking beyond national borders, or politically defined regions like East Asia or Southeast Asia, and in applying different kinds of organizational logic - in other words, in thinking of areas like Zomia as places in themselves - they see a chance not only to paint a more coherent portrait of history, but also to better address the troublesome and sometimes violent politics that can erupt in what are traditionally seen as the world’s marginal border regions.

“There are all kinds of ways of cutting up the world,” says Scott, “and it partly depends on what you want to understand.”

The image of Asia has been shaped by its great empires: the Han and Tang dynasties of China, the Gupta Empire and the Mughals in South Asia, the Thai and Malay city-states. These civilizations grew up on coasts or in fertile river valleys, the largest engulfing vast stretches of territory and leaving behind rich historical records in everything from tombs and temples to treatises and household goods. Their cultures still dominate the identities of the countries where their descendents live.

All this, however, is lowland history. Zomia is an alternate world, a realm of mutable, outlaw cultures, creating almost no empires and resisting being incorporated into those that originated elsewhere. Its people include the Hmong, the Wa, the Karen, the Lahu, and the PaO. Its exact borders are up for debate: Scott’s definition of Zomia is smaller than some, stretching from Vietnam up into China, but west only as far as northeast India, covering a region traditionally known as the Southeast Asian massif.

The defining characteristic of this expanse of thickly wooded hills and mountains is what Scott calls “friction of terrain.” Travel is arduous and inhabitants are difficult to dislodge or discipline from below. In Zomia, elevation not only compounds distance but supersedes it, so that people living several hundred miles apart but at the same altitude can have nearly identical cultures - but little in common with neighbors who live lower or higher in the hills.

All of which makes Zomia a place where state power has made itself felt only weakly, if at all. As Scott writes, Zomia “represents one of the world’s longest-standing and largest refuges of populations who live in the shadow of states but who have not yet been fully incorporated.”

The 20th century, with its arsenal of distance-devouring technologies from the airplane to the Internet, has made it easier for states to smooth the friction of landscape, and recent decades have also seen a determined campaign among Asian states to bring their highland regions into the fold, often by settling them with lowland people more loyal to the national government. As a result, since World War II, Zomia has lost much of its distinctive wildness.

But there are still pockets of fierce resistance. In the mountains along the Myanmar-China border, for example, the Wa have carved out what is essentially their own unofficial narco-state, funded by poppy production and heroin smuggling and protected by a well-equipped 20,000-strong army.

The best known of the Zomian populations, at least in the United States, is the Hmong, many of whom fought alongside the United States against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists in the Vietnam War. More than any other highland people, the Hmong define themselves in opposition to the ethnic Han of China, against whom they have risen up in rebellion, on a regular basis, for millennia. The crackdowns that follow these sometimes massive rebellions - and, most recently, the crackdown that followed the communist victory in the Vietnam War - have driven the Hmong farther and farther into the hills, and today several million live in the massif, mostly in China and often at elevations above 3,000 feet.

Other peoples, like the Karen on the Myanmar-Thailand border, have a similar history of revolt against lowland governments - inspired, in many instances, by charismatic prophets - followed by suppression and retreat into the highlands.

The cultures that have emerged have tended to be fiercely nonhierarchical. The Wa, for example, limit ostentatious feast-throwing and forbid the wealthy from conducting sacrifices that might be seen as giving them chief-like status. The Kachin have a long tradition of killing chiefs who are seen as overreaching. The Lahu, of China’s Yunnan province, have no level of political organization above the hamlet. All of these traditions actively prevent a larger, more complex society from emerging.

The antistate orientation of these societies extends, in Scott’s description, even into the sort of agriculture they practice. Slash-and-burn, or “swidden,” agriculture - clearing patches of woodland for crops and moving on after each harvest to allow the soil to replenish itself - is usually seen as a crude antecedent to the more intensive farming practiced in the lowlands and most of the developed world. But swiddening and other forms of itinerant agriculture, Scott argues (borrowing from the work of the mid-20th-century French anthropologist Pierre Clastres), are often adopted in preference to fixed agriculture, by people who know how to do both. The reason, Scott says, is that swiddening provides a freedom that fixed agriculture does not. Not being tied down to one laboriously cultivated piece of land, farmers can pick up and move on if they find political conditions onerous.

In his most speculative and contested claim, Scott argues that even the lack of a written language in many Zomian societies is an adaptive measure and a conscious societal choice. For peasants, writing was, first and foremost, a tool of state control - it was the instrument the elite used to extract money, labor, and military service from them. As a result, Scott argues, when those peasants escaped into the hills they discarded writing in an attempt to ensure that similar coercive hierarchies didn’t arise in the new societies they formed.

“I’ve studied peasant rebellions, and one of first things that early peasant rebellions always do is to attack the records office,” says Scott. “They associate writing with their oppression.”

Scott’s book has the potential to gain a readership far beyond the world of Southeast Asian studies. But among others with an intimate knowledge of the part of the world he writes about, he has come in for criticisms for intellectual overreach.

Scott’s anarchist-tinged view of the state’s relationship to outlying populations, for example, has been contested by anthropologists who study the people of the Southeast Asian highlands. In reality, several scholars argue, the relationship isn’t simply one of appropriation, but a more complex mix of mutual suspicion and reliance. For many Zomians, the lowland state is not just an oppressor, but a source - often capricious - of goods and services and even protection.

“I’ve done field research in highland communities that have had longstanding relations with the state,” says Hjorleifur Jonsson, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. “From their perspective, it wasn’t about being controlled or not, it was about access to very unevenly distributed benefits.”

And where Scott sees splintering and flight, anthropologists see the same sort of motivation that lured settlers into the American West: the prospect of available land and economic improvement. And that, more than political rebellion and evasion, also shapes the sort of crops they grow and how they grow them.

“Certainly there are instances of what he’s talking about, there’s no question,” says Charles Keyes, an anthropologist and emeritus professor at the University of Washington. “But they’re the exception rather than the rule.”

Scott offers rebuttals to the specific critiques leveled against him - for example, he argues that, since profitable fixed agriculture is possible in the highlands, then other, more political factors must be driving so many people there to swidden agriculture. And the beneficent welfare state that Johnsson describes, Scott points out, is a relatively recent invention.

Scott cheerfully concedes, though, the possibility that he may have overgeneralized in the pursuit of a cohesive argument.

“Uncle,” he said, smiling, when asked about it in an interview in his Yale office. “But the question is whether I am basically right.”

What the inhabitants of Zomia, in all their diversity, broadly show, he argues, is that given sanctuary by geography, people can prove as eager to reject the basic tenets of civilization as to embrace them, and that the communities that result aren’t necessarily caldrons of savagery and chaos.

“I would be tickled pink if people wanted to work this out and say where it fit and where it didn’t fit,” he says, not only in Southeast Asia, but all over the world.

In history and political science, much recent scholarship has sought out new vantage points from which to see modern society and its roots - looking at politics from the point of view of the disenfranchised, for example, rather than generals and political leaders. But what Scott is doing is something more radical. He’s arguing that we need to look past our notion that civilization itself represents a desirable goal, and realize that for centuries, people living in a huge part of the world took a look at what civilized society had to offer and passed.

“If I had my way,” he says, “you’d never think about civilization in the same way again.”

Scott is not suggesting that we chuck society and head for the hills. He believes there’s much that the modern welfare state offers that makes our lives demonstrably better. Asked whether he considers himself an anarchist, he says it’s something he hasn’t entirely figured out - his next book will be a collection of essays on the question.

Still, for the majority of the world’s inhabitants who will never know life outside of a large organized state, it’s important to keep in mind, he says, that there’s nothing inherently natural about the way the modern state emerged or the shape it took. And it’s not just starry-eyed hippies and kibbutzim who have asserted otherwise.

Nor are national boundaries always the most helpful way of framing the world. Zomia offers a fresh and, Scott would argue, more logical way of looking at much of Asia - a part of the world that, despite its importance on the global stage, remains politically and culturally opaque to many in the West. The seeming lawlessness along the borders of Southeast Asia, the restiveness in Tibet and other Chinese provinces aren’t isolated disturbances, he suggests, but rather part of the larger, centuries-long clash between Zomia and its many neighbors.

And through that contentious history, Zomia has exerted its own influence. Scott asks whether we can fully comprehend China’s magnificent cultural history or its patriarchal Confucian traditions without an understanding of the highland “barbarians” long at its borders, doggedly refusing the blandishments of civilization. Just as the anti-authoritarianism of the Hmong and the Wa only makes sense in the context of their long struggle with lowland power, so it is hard to understand the Asian giants of today without acknowledging the fugitive spirit of Zomia lurking in their hills.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Might plants have feelings too?

While dashing home to escape the bitterly frigid weather last weekend a friend stopped me on the street and excitedly pulled a book from her shopping bag for me to see. It was "Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring The Earth To Life" by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm".

While written for children, this brilliantly written and exquisitely illustrated work could serve as a general introduction to ecology for non-scientists (and maybe even a few of them) of all ages.

Among other things Living Sunlight points out why" "Without plants there would be no oxygen. Without plants we would have no food. Without plants we could not live. Without plants there would be no life on Earth."

Turns out plants are also incredibly resourceful and innovative when it comes to survival. (GW)

Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too

By Natalie Angier
New York Times
December 22, 2009

I stopped eating pork about eight years ago, after a scientist happened to mention that the animal whose teeth most closely resemble our own is the pig. Unable to shake the image of a perky little pig flashing me a brilliant George Clooney smile, I decided it was easier to forgo the Christmas ham. A couple of years later, I gave up on all mammalian meat, period. I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer. Food choices are often like that: difficult to articulate yet strongly held. And lately, debates over food choices have flared with particular vehemence.

In his new book, “Eating Animals,” the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer describes his gradual transformation from omnivorous, oblivious slacker who “waffled among any number of diets” to “committed vegetarian.” Last month, Gary Steiner, a philosopher at Bucknell University, argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times that people should strive to be “strict ethical vegans” like himself, avoiding all products derived from animals, including wool and silk. Killing animals for human food and finery is nothing less than “outright murder,” he said, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “eternal Treblinka.”

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.

“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”

Yes, it’s best to nip trouble in the bud.

Dr. Hilker and her colleagues, as well as other research teams, have found that certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. They may sprout carpets of tumorlike neoplasms to knock the eggs off, or secrete ovicides to kill them, or sound the S O S. Reporting in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Hilker and her coworkers determined that when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.

Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”

Plants eavesdrop on one another benignly and malignly. As they described in Science and other journals, Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues have discovered that seedlings of the dodder plant, a parasitic weed related to morning glory, can detect volatile chemicals released by potential host plants like the tomato. The young dodder then grows inexorably toward the host, until it can encircle the victim’s stem and begin sucking the life phloem right out of it. The parasite can even distinguish between the scents of healthier and weaker tomato plants and then head for the hale one.

“Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants,” Dr. De Moraes said, “it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.”

It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Plans for electric vehicles fuel bicyclists' tempers

One would think, at first blush, that environmentally-minded bicyclists would support the development and deployment of non-polluting electric cars -- especially if they knew that the electricity to power the vehicles was being supplied by renewable energy sources like wind.

Not so fast. Bicycle loving residents of Amsterdam are resisting the government's plans to introduce 10,000 electric cars into the city by 2015. Automobiles (be they electric or internal-combusting) crowd their tiny streets, leaving less room for bikes. Bottom line: bicyclists fear that government subsidies and public support for electric vehicles could put a big squeeze on them. (GW)

A pro-bicycle city faces trouble promoting electric cars

Evan Lehmann
December 21, 2009

AMSTERDAM -- Cars in the pinched, medieval streets at the center of this city can quickly clog traffic. The policy has been to find myriad ways to discourage them, clearing the way for more and more bicyclists.

The Dutch have tried stiff fees, a maze of prohibited lanes and other ways of outright discrimination to limit the number of cars in this antique city of arched bridges and canals. It was originally built to cater to boats.

The city's charm campaign was then shifted to bicyclists, but now officials are trying to switch gears and mount an aggressive effort to encourage people to buy new electric cars. That jibes with this country's fight against global warming, but it is also warming the tempers among cyclists. They worry that their traditional right-of-way over cars will be sideswiped by more cars and more parking ramps.

The city council is giving free power to new electric car owners for the next two years and has agreed to pay half of the extra cost of purchasing plug-in vehicles, as compared to cheaper gasoline-powered models. The city might even carve out a reserved parking space with fuel access and front-door approach for new owners. That's a jackpot in this space-squeezed city.

There is electricity in the air here. Amsterdam wants to have 10,000 electric cars in the city by 2015, and four times that number by 2020. In 30 years, every car here is expected to whir quietly on electricity. The city has already installed 19 charging points in the last month. Motorists can fill up and zip off without dropping a dime.

"Now we're going to explode it," said Peter Duijn, who manages the electric car program.

Dikes may have freeways, but not inner cities

There is an underlying context to this climate movement. The Dutch refuse to drown. And they are not hesitant about blaming greenhouse gases for accelerating the rise of sea levels and increasing downpours that cause riverine flooding.

Amsterdam is a low-lying city veined with canals and the Amstel River, which leads to the IJ Bay and on to the North Sea. About 40 percent of the country is below sea level, and in 1933, the IJ was separated from the ocean with a 20-mile dike that transformed the brackish bay into a huge freshwater lake. It was meant to prevent flooding.

The dike also has a freeway running across its top. Trucks and cars race along its sea-sprayed lanes. It's an older piece of the Netherlands' ongoing "Delta Works," a massive infrastructure program spanning decades that's meant to keep the country above water by creating a new coastline. Much of the country's shoreline is now buffered from the sea by man-made walls.

The Dutch don't see another choice. A sprawling belt of the Netherlands, reaching north to Germany and south to Belgium, is at least 1 meter below sea level. Without the coastal walls and an elaborate series of dikes and pumps that push the water out, nearly half of the country would already be underwater.

"We need protection. That's the end," said Pieter Jacobs, a water management official with the Dutch government.

'Afraid' of more cars, even electrics

The promotion of electric cars is seen as a crucial step toward meeting the city's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025, a level that's twice as ambitious as the plan proposed in the U.S. Senate.

"We think it's high time cities take a position" on climate change, said Marijke Vos, a former member of Parliament who is now Amsterdam's environment alderwoman.

Not everyone is excited about the emergence of cars that plug into the wall like a vacuum cleaner, and the city's emphatic promotion of them. The Netherlands breed bicyclists. The narrow streets of Amsterdam siphon legions of upright riders on heavy black bikes to work, pubs and retail stores. Long ribbons of them dominate roadways, passively demanding subservience from their outnumbered counterparts in cars. Couples sometimes ride side by side, holding hands.

Up to now, they have ruled. There are 180,000 parking spots for cars in Amsterdam, compared to 550,000 bicycles. Last year, 38 percent of transportation "movements" in the city were by bicycle, compared to 37 percent by car. In the city center, cyclists reached a critical mass of 55 percent of movements.

"We are afraid. If you add more parking spaces, you get more cars," said Marjolein de Lange, a member of the cycling union Fietsersbond, which is concerned about the electric car program. "We think the cleanest means of transport is the bike. Definitely."

The city budget has shone on cyclists for years by providing bike lanes that are separated from roads, by building soaring parking ramps that hold thousands of bikes, and with anti-theft initiatives that include free tattooing on cycle frames.

Some cars get tossed in canals

Electric cars are the newcomers. The program is expected to cost in total about $15 million. Its emphasis is on replacing gas-powered cars from city streets. "We don't want more cars," said Duijn, who oversees the program.

The program comes as small changes are visible on Amsterdam's roadways. Dozens of Smart cars, the small and fuel-efficient two-seaters with gasoline engines, have reportedly been thrown into the city's canals this year. Also, more gas-powered scooters are racing along the city's bike lanes, where they are legally allowed to roam.

But these are all interlopers to Ria Hilhorst, the city's cycling official. "I think it [bicycling] is the future way of transport. It's very fast. You can go anywhere. It keeps cities livable and safe."

It's unclear if the electric car program will increase the number of vehicles in Amsterdam. But if it did, that might prompt small changes that cause big headaches -- changes, perhaps, like having to wear bike helmets, something that is not seen now.

"If you want to wear a helmet, you're free to," allowed Govert de With, a stringy cyclist who smells like he might have sweated recently. "But it's not part of the culture. You don't really need to. Biking is safe when there's more bikes."

"It's better if there are no cars," he added.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The dilemma of common but differentiated responsibilities

African leaders are very disappointed with the outcomes from the just concluded Copenhagen Climate Conference. They feel that the tentative, toothless and tepid agreements under consideration do not adequately take into account the fact that Africa has contributed least to the problem yet stands to suffer the most from the consequences of climate change.

We must gather up the courage to conduct a bloodless design science revolution before the window of opportunity closes and the other form of revolt becomes more attractive. (GW)

Climate Change: The African Stand

By Maureen Chigbo


December 20, 2009

African negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference demand immediate reduction in emissions generated by developed countries and financial support to combat the negative impact on the continent

The conference was intended to be the continuation of the journey towards saving the environment, mankind’s common heritage, but the intrigues displayed did not suggest that the delegates were there for a common goal. There were so much posturing, arm-twisting and emphasis on formalities by different delegations, groups and economic blocs including the European Union, the African Group, G-77 and China.

There were protests by different non-governmental and civil society organisations against being shut out or leaving conferees in long queues out in the cold because the Bella Centre, 15,000-capacity venue, could not take about 40,000 people who came for the event. International Youth groups also staged a sit-in at the conference demanding a “fair and legally binding climate deal.”

Even the negotiators from different countries, especially the developed countries, initially held tenaciously to their positions without giving in to the demand of others. Discussions hovered around issues such as reducing carbon emissions, Kyoto protocol, the Bali Action Plan, binding legal document, funding and mitigation and adaptation measures for containing climate challenge. The technical committees made up of experts (negotiators) on climate change and environment issues of participating countries deployed all their energy, wiles and craft of their trade to harmer out agreements that protect the interest of their respective countries. Intrigues led some regions to create divisions among countries of some continents. For instance, the EU was believed to have used the least developed countries, LDC, to upset the unity among the African Group as they tried to present a common position at the conference which will be binding on the EU and the United States of America.

Realising the inherent danger, Kamel Djemouai from Algeria and the leader of the African Group, warned against divide and rule tactic, saying: “it is very wrong. Our brothers from the least developed countries have to be very careful. One day you will have to go out of the group of LDC and become developing countries and then you will face any wrong commitment made at this conference.”

This warning came against the backdrop that the EU had previously promised financial assistance to the LDC to counter African Group’s common position on reducing carbon emissions by the developed world. When the African group felt frustrated with the antics of the developed world, they walked out of the conference on December 14. They returned to the conference debate only after Connie Hedegaard, the president of the Conference of Parties on Climate Change, COP 15, as the Climate Conference was called, deftly reached out to them to salvage the situation.

Unfortunately, Hedegaard resigned her appointment last Wednesday, December 16, due to domestic political shenanigans. However, before her resignation, she warned that the conference could “fail probably, without anyone really wanting it so. But we spent too much time on posturing, on repeating positions, on formalities. If we are going to make it and we are, then we must change gear. We can’t risk failure. No one here can carry that responsibility. That means that the key word for the next two days must be compromise.”

Delegations appeared to heed her call for compromise. Ojo Maduekwe, leader of the Nigerian team, believed the conference would reach a compromise on most of the contentious issues before the end.

A statement issued by Sweden on behalf of the EU said clearly that the union came to seal a deal at the conference. “The Copenhagen summit must be more than just another checkpoint along the road. The breakthrough must happen here and now. Now is the time to give and take. Now is the time to stretch our commitment. Now is the time to show our courage to succeed. I turn to all of you and say: Let us not leave Copenhagen before we have reached an agreement that is ambitious, global and comprehensive.”

To secure a better deal, the African group established a small think-tank of five countries – Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya - to streamline its position. Members of the group are from the technical experts or negotiators.

The African climate change negotiators’ messages were based on Africa’s common position on climate change as adopted in Algiers on November 21, 2008 and updated by the special session of the AMCEN held in Nairobi on May 29, 2009 and endorsed by the 13th African Union Summit held in Libya, last July. Africa is asking, in the context of environmental justice, that it should be equitably compensated for the environmental resources, economic and social losses it has suffered as a result of developed countries’ historical responsibilities on climate change. “In this respect, Africa requires sustained and scaled up finance, technology and capacity building for adaptation and risk management,” the negotiators said in a statement.

They said Africa recognises the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, and reaffirms its principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and that these should form the basis for the post 2012 regime. Given the uncertainties of the impacts of climate change, Africa’s adaptation measures should be based on the precautionary principle. Africa insisted that the Copenhagen summit must produce a two-track outcome – one for the amendment of annex B (all developed countries) of the Kyoto protocol on further commitments by Annex 1 parties for the 2nd and subsequent commitment periods (Article 3.9 of the Kyoto Protocol). Secondly, the conference must produce a separate legal instrument, for the outcome of the negotiations under the Convention. “Africa will not accept any delay by developed countries to deeply cut their greenhouse gas emissions and support for Africa to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change,” the statement said.

According to the African negotiators, for positive and acceptable outcome in Copenhagen, Africa insists that we must stick to the mandate of the Bali Action Plan under the Convention and to the mandate of Article 3.9 of the Kyoto Protocol. On the Bali Action Plan, Africa proposed a shared vision which involves a fair, inclusive, effective and equitable deal in Copenhagen that will benefit the vulnerable countries and be undertaken in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development and the need for gender equity. Africa’s priority is the implementation of the adaptation action. This implies that Africa is the most vulnerable continent and has the right for full support to adapt to climate change.

Africa is of the view that it contributed the least to the global greenhouse gas emissions, and stands to suffer the most. It wants comprehensive and action-oriented adaptation programme to be established to support adaptation action, provide financial, technological and capacity building support by developed country parties for adaptation in developing countries.

In addition, it wants the Copenhagen conference to recognise that climate change is an additional burden to sustainable development and a threat to achieving the millennium development goals. On mitigation, Africa wanted the Copenhagen outcome to contain ambitious, qualified, legally binding and wide greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments for all non-Kyoto developed country parties, of at least 45 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020.

Others are that mitigation actions for Africa should be voluntary and nationally appropriate; that a firewall must be maintained between mitigation commitments by all developed countries and mitigation actions by developing countries. There must also be comparability of efforts among developed countries. Africa is of the view that a financial commitment of at least 2.5 percent of global GDP of developed countries is required to support and enable adaptation and mitigation as well as technology transfer and capacity building actions in developing countries.

Among other things, Africa wanted the Copenhagen outcome to provide new, additional, sustainable, accessible and predictable finance, transparent and equitable institutional arrangements that must facilitate access by developing countries to the means of implementation in a coherent and enabling manner. It asked for an agreement on technology deployment, diffusion and transfer that must ensure access by developing countries to affordable, appropriate and adaptable technologies for enhanced action on mitigation and adaptation that would address the urgent needs of Africa.

On Kyoto protocol issues, Africa, according to the negotiators, will never accept the replacement of the protocol nor its merger with any new agreement. Also, developed countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent below 1990levels by 2020 and at least 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to achieve the lowest level of the stabilisation assessed by the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report.

But the African agenda may not be fully realised going by the position of the EU. From the EU point of view, the Copenhagen Agreement must be ambitious and enable the world to stay well below two degrees of warming. EU has already binding legislation in place that will reduce emissions beyond 2020 and is prepared to reduce emissions by up to 95 percent by 2050 compared to 1990. The EU called on other developed countries to make this objective part of the Copenhagen Agreement. “We will never succeed without important contributions from the emerging economies, which must reduce emissions significantly compared to business as usual. The EU recognises the action already taken by some developing countries. But the world needs more,” it said.

This, notwithstanding, developed countries are also bringing pressure to bear on the oil producing countries like Nigeria. The developed world is blaming oil producing countries for the carbon emission whereas there are historical evidence to show that the global warming the world is witnessing today is as a result of the activities of developed countries 100 years ago when they emitted high levels of carbon into the atmosphere as a result of industrialisation and unsustainable development activities.

Delegates of oil producing countries like Nigeria believe that there is a conspiracy against fossil fuel. For example, in Copenhagen, the energy powering its productive activities is wind energy. A delegation including Nigerians’ visit to a waste to energy plant in Malmo, showed a practical example of workable waste to energy technology based on public private partnership. One of the delegates said that the visit tells clearly that the Copenhagen agenda has a future although that future must not happen without Africa. “There is a conscious agenda on the part of developed countries to phase out fossil fuel and the determination to improve their renewable energy technologies to a level that will enable them turn their back on fossil fuel,” said Julius Okputu, commissioner of environment, Cross River State.

The challenge of the western agenda is for Africa, especially Nigeria, whose revenue is solely derived from oil, to go back and develop capacities to key into the global agenda. What this means is that Nigeria has to go beyond oil to generate its revenue. And the answer lies in keying into the Reduced Emissions on Deforestation and Forest Degradation Agenda, REDD. Nigeria will also develop its capacity to exploit alternative and renewable energy resources if it does not want to be left in the cold in the new global agenda for climate change.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In Copenhagen world leaders continued talking rather than acting

The Copenhagen Climate Summit has concluded and the reviews are in. I think it is fair to say that there was consensus on one point and one point only: the results were disappointing. World leaders did not take any significant steps towards avoiding a worst-case climate scenario.

A new world order -- at least as far as climate change is concerned -- did emerge from these talks. Unfortunately, it is not the one that the poorer nations of the world were calling for. (GW)

China and the US go solo in Copenhagen

By Christian Kjaer
20 de diciembre de 2009

The meagre result in Copenhagen unfortunately confirms that unpleasant decisions are indeed still being put off. World leaders continued talking in Copenhagen rather than acting.

At his inaugural remarks in January 2009, president Obama proclaimed: 'our time of standing pat, of protecting national interest and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.' The meagre result in Copenhagen unfortunately confirms that unpleasant decisions are indeed still being put off. World leaders continued talking in Copenhagen rather than acting.

"The conference decides to take note of the Copenhagen Accord of December 18, 2009”. That was all that the 15th Conference of the Parties attending the Copenhagen Summit on climate change was able to reach agreement on – nothing more, nothing less. It leaves it up to the nations to sign up to the Accord. It was the last option available to avoid a full-scale breakdown in negotiations. Its only uplifting feature is that it ensures that negotiations can continue.

The Copenhagen Accord that the Summit took note of boils down to a non-binding political agreement based on the lowest common denominator, brokered between the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. China and the United States went solo in Copenhagen, agreed to continue business as usual, leaving everybody else out, while discrediting the entire UN process.

The G2 managed to get India, Brazil and South Africa on board, before hasting out of Denmark on Friday night, leaving it to the remaining 188 countries to work through to Saturday morning on accepting or rejecting the empty Accord without changes.

While the Summit did nothing to fight global warming, it established the new world order. The unilateral approach to climate change of the United States has been replaced by a situation in which China and the United States make bilateral decisions on issues of global interest. And the world’s two biggest polluters decided that it is not in their interest to agree internationally on greenhouse gas reductions.

The EU’s strategy of leading by example failed and left them without influence. That, however, should not discourage Europe from continuing the strategy. The world will need global climate leadership from the EU in 2010 more than ever, now that the super-powers have shown their true colour.

The European Wind Energy Association urges world leaders to work tirelessly on reaching a legally binding international treaty as soon as possible next year, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 30% by 2020. The clock is ticking, immediate action is required, and we are running out of time.

In the end, after two years of negotiations, the Copenhagen Accord is a disappointing failure. It does not produce a legally binding treaty or deliver a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It does not contain one word on 2020 or 2050 emission reduction targets or any reference to how or when a legally binding agreement can be reached. The only thing it achieved was a non-committing text “to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees.”

The world has increasingly been warned about the consequences of unchecked climate change. Scientists have repeatedly said that global greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels have to peak by 2015 and then rapidly and sharply decrease if humankind is to have a 50% chance of avoiding a temperature increase greater than 2°C, which is considered a somewhat manageable level, although the most exposed countries and many scientists believe the limit is 1.5°C.

A three- to four-degree temperature increase, which the failure at the UN conference could be taking us towards, would have catastrophic results for humankind and many of the species that inhabit Earth. The fall-out would include loss of sea ice, melting glaciers, species extinction, drought and famine, a sharp increase in tropical diseases, mass migration, more wars and civil unrest.

One can only hope that world leaders will come to understand the depth of the angry reaction to their lack of collective political will and courage, and spend the next few months working together. The worst thing that could happen is that they entirely abandon the process of reaching a new treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

When global leaders fail, local leaders must step in. Impatient with the lack of progress on the climate change front, many local politicians with increasingly larger urban populations are implementing plans to increase energy efficiencies, shift dependence on coal, gas and oil to cleaner fuels, and work with their electorates on reducing CO2 levels that are suffocating our warming atmosphere.

Just like those forward-looking local leaders, wind power and the many other renewable energy sources are also way ahead of many national politicians when it comes to climate change mitigation. Emissions-free wind power is already providing one rapidly-deployable solution to the carbon monster we have created since the Industrial Revolution. Technology is available and the European wind energy industry stands ready to deliver, but global leaders need to provide a much stronger signal of commitment to reducing carbon reductions in the power sector.

It is not too late for the politicians who were in Copenhagen to provide that signal to investors and manufacturers, but the clock is ticking.
President Obama: I hope that the difficulties you admittedly face in the US Congress have not made you forget the responsibility you so eloquently expressed at your inauguration less than a year ago: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Christian Kjaer is Chief Executive, European Wind Energy Association