Sandra Steingraber: Dispatches From the Paris Climate Talks
To walk into the vast, gated community called Le Bourget, where the two-week Paris climate summit is nearly over, is to enter a surreal community.
It starts with the candy-colored sculptures of megafauna who pose, two by two, along the main boulevard just on the other side of the security checkpoint. They are larger than life (to remind us of the enormity of the task at hand?) and translucent (to signal openness and sincerity of effort?).
Meanwhile, the vaulted, transparent roof above the animal parade gives the impression that we are looking at the sky through an upside down, glass-bottomed boat.
Lord, has our arc already passed the tipping point?
In fact, there are skylights throughout this complex of outsized buildings, bathing everything and everyone in the serenity of natural light—as oblique as it is in northern hemisphere December.
Sunlight shines on the battalions of journalists at work in the press room that is, all by itself, the size of an airplane terminal. It shines into the bustling exhibitions halls where everyone with a booth claims to be part of the solution and ready to lead, including the very nice woman at Nuclear4Climate with her many pie charts.
It glints off the ubiquitous, glossy news brief that lies on every café table and writing surface, courtesy of We Mean Business, the voice of the investor community that “stands ready to lead the global transition to a thriving, clean economy” but only if the world’s governments adopt “an ambitious catalytic agreement that signals an irreversible shirt to a new global economy.”
And the sun is presumably also shining in the inner sanctum of this buzzing place where the climate treaty is being forged behind closed doors. On Monday morning, negotiators handed a 21-page draft document to the world’s ministers—as a kind of passing of a baton in a relay race that is taking place on a political high wire.
Sunday was scheduled as a day of rest for the teams of negotiators, but, in fact, they continued to toil away here in their efforts to hammer out a global agreement that is supposed to trigger rapid decarbonization of a global energy system that, currently, is 80 percent dependent on lighting carbon on fire.
In this process, the negotiators and the ministers are not sequestered away, like jurors, from the kaleidoscope of plenaries, debates, summits, announcements and media events going on all around them—and at any given hour there are multiple presentations in multiple venues—but exist in a dynamic relationship with them. They give and receive messages. They take meetings. They emerge to make announcements. They are entreated, cajoled, pressured and tweeted at. They participate in media events, attended by hundreds.
It’s the first time I’ve heard a question at a press conference begin with the words, “Your excellency...”
And because last week’s negotiators delivered to this week’s ministers a draft with many bracketed passages, indicating places where the language is contested and multiple word choices remain to be made, almost nothing, at this point, has been taken off the table and anything could still happen in the next few days.
The sense here is that COP21, as the Paris climate talks are called, could be a truly historic moment. A turning point in human history. A transformational event that helps avert planetary catastrophe.
Or it could entirely go off the rails.
La Bourget is not a cynical or hysterical place. In spite of the treaty’s many remaining unresolved issues—What’s the time scale? What’s the temperature target? Who pays? How are commitments verified?—the mood here remains cooperative, urgent and doggedly determined. For now.
As is it does at the profusion of side events going on all over the city of Paris, any one of which would be a headliner affair in any other context.
On Sunday night, I walked by past the Arc de Triumph and dropped in on the World Climate Summit. With Sustainia Awards to hand out “to the winners of tomorrow” and multiple plenary presentations, the summit brought together hundreds of investors, financiers, bankers, business leader and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Ted Turner was in the house. So was Sir Richard Branson. The price of a ticket: $1,000. (I had a press pass).
Richard Branson Presents @Sustainia Award for World's Most Innovative City Solution @dnvgl @xynteo https://t.co/8Q37PkfOCs via @ecowatch— Bjørn K. Haugland (@Bjørn K. Haugland)1449481061.0
In an interview with me at the end of the evening, the hosts of the event, Michael Mathres—strategic communications advisor, co-founder of World Climate Ltd. and longtime observer of the many rounds of United Nations climate talks, had this to say about COP21: “I’m quite hopeful. This is the first weekend and it’s the first time where all the countries have signed a draft agreement on the first weekend. It’s rare to have a draft so early.”
Noting that U.S. CEOs were now on board along with their European counterparts, Marthres claimed the global business community was ready for action and was waiting only for a strong signal from political leaders that the commitment to renewable energy and a decarbonized future was deep, broad and enduring.
He was also sanguine about the provisional language still remaining in the draft treaty—“it’s matter of negotiating”—although doubtful that the final version would ultimately embrace the target temperature rises that science claims is necessary to save island nations from drowning (1.5 degrees or less). Nevertheless, Mathres thought the real value of the treaty lie not so much in the thermometer number chosen for the final draft but in its ability to kick-start investment and so create accelerating change that can be further ratcheted up in the years ahead.
As an example, Mathres pointed to the momentum of China, which went from zero solar panels 10 years ago to becoming the world’s leader in solar power today. The driving force, he said, was not a treaty but lowered technology costs and greater efficiencies.
For Mathres, who is French, the big potential obstacle in the road to a renewable, carbon-free future is not the climate denying hold-outs elected to high office in the U.S. (“you can’t count on the U.S. Congress”) but financial instruments. Especially irksome to Mathres is the fact that the Green Climate Fund—the mechanism by which developed nations help developing nations go renewable—has a budget of $100 billion in while subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry exceed $500 billion. That sends the wrong signal to business and finance leaders.
Those fossil fuels have but two faces. “Coal is dead. It’s the end of coal,” Mathres said matter of factly. As he sees it, oil and gas are the sole remaining competitors with renewables. Of these, the oil industry, he noted, had been unusually quiet at COP21, while natural gas has been speaking loudly, trying to position itself as a big player and a “bridge” to renewables.
And what did Mathres think about that? “Look,” he said. “I’m against gas. You can compensate for gas with renewables. We don’t need gas.” He also noted that promotion of natural gas would give the upper hand to Russia, which sits atop vast gas fields.
Mathres’ optimistic candor and concerns about the possible direction of financial incentives were shared by Peik Stenlund, one of 50 CEOs attending the World Climate Summit.
Stendlund told me that the 2009 climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen—widely seen as a failure—changed his life entirely. “COP15 inspired me to devote my life to solving the problem of climate change.”
Smiling, he added, “I was very young.”
Now, the company he founded, Swedish-based Pamojo, provides electricity, via gasification of waste plus solar panels, to rural east African communities.
Stendlund’s enthusiasm for scalable business models that serve sustainable energy needs was palpable. He told me that he sees himself as an active change maker—one of many here at the summit—who is ready to ramp up. To that end, he is about to launch a foundation. “If politicians can’t agree to do something, we can do something—as long as there are ears on the political side listening to our needs,” said Stenlund.
And what are those needs? The founder and CEO didn’t hesitate. “We need the right incentives. Carbon dioxide needs to be taxed.”
Needless to say, not everyone here at COP21 is focused on how to incentivize technological innovation through pricing and financial schemes. Some delegates are more concerned about their island homes being swept out to sea. Or the tundra melting beneath their feet.
By Monday morning, back at La Bourget, indigenous groups were openly expressing alarm about the possibilities of a minimalist deal that would allow for 3 degrees of warming. “Below 1.5 to stay alive!” was the rallying cry.
Also on Monday, Climate Action Network’s daily newsletter, Eco, ran an open letter to the negotiating ministers under the headline “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (No, I Regret Nothing): “The two deals are clear. We can have the no-regrets deal or we can have the 3-degrees deal. The question now becomes: Who will bring us to the no-regrets deal?”
On the same day, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged the ministers in a direct address, which he also shared with the media in a press conference, to be bold and do “what the science tells us … nature goes on its on way. It does not negotiate with humans. It does not wait for humans.” He openly acknowledged that, above 1.5 degrees of warming, many island nations will drown.
A clear and simple message: 1.5 to stay alive! #COP21 #ZeroBy2050 https://t.co/BVeRSsLcte— Klaas Decorte (@Klaas Decorte)1449578516.0
By the end of Tuesday, the 1.5-degree target was still on the table and rumors and reports swirled that momentum was building behind it. Sec. of State John Kerry said that the U.S. would support 1.5. But as an “aspirational” goal.
.@JohnKerry Pledges New Support to Vulnerable Countries at #COP21 https://t.co/0kNYTFJVpJ @sierraclub @StateDept https://t.co/kxgLZiOsLW— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1449673738.0
So, now we enter the final 72-hour hours of the two-week climate talks and all I know for sure is that I increasingly dislike Le Bourget’s expressionless, cartoon animal greeters, which seem to offer no clues at all about what the ultimate outcome will be. Upon which everything we love depend.
So, every morning at dawn, before heading out to Le Bourget, I jog through the Tuileries Garden near my hotel by the Louvre where the statuary is demonstrative and has things to say about nature, victory, heroism and betrayal.
Along the gravel path, under an open sky, Hercules contemplates his superhuman labors. Theseus clubs the Minotaur. A shepherd rescues a goat. A lion subdues a crocodile. Nymphs repose by pools of water. Lovers kiss.
And Cain strides naked and alone, hands over face, having just learned, too late, that, yes, he was his brother’s keeper.
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By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Tropical Storm Josephine Also No Threat to Land<p>Meanwhile, the season's record-earliest tenth named storm, Tropical Storm Josephine, was also struggling with high wind shear as it traced out a path over the open ocean.</p><p>At 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Josephine was located about 310 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds at 45 mph. Josephine is expected to bring one to three inches of rain over portions of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico over the weekend. Josephine will encounter steadily rising wind shear through Monday, peaking at a very high 30 – 35 knots. This high shear is likely to destroy Josephine's circulation by Monday, before the storm can affect any other land areas.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/tropical-storm-kyle-forms-unlikely-to-affect-land/" target="_blank">Yale Climate Connections</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds<p>The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures. </p><p>Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.</p><p>There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.</p><p>They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.</p>
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.<p>But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called <a href="https://theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage. </p>
Collecting With the Current<p>"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/green-entrepreneur-sets-sights-on-great-pacific-garbage-patch/a-38855785" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a> declares on its website.</p><p>But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.</p><p>One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.</p><p>One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."</p>
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.<p>The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."</p><p>"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."</p><p>Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.</p>
Communication Breakdown<p>The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."</p><p>Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.</p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said. </p>
Inshore Solution?<p>Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.</p><p>"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says. </p><p>As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first. </p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Great Pacific Garbage Patch</a>. </p><p>The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.</p><p>Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.</p><p><span></span>"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2646992655#/" target="_self"></a></em><em></em></p>
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