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December 5th, 2007 Bill Mckibben, James Pitkin | News Stories
 

Ten Years After

The hot air and cold facts that show we’ve wasted a decade since the Kyoto global warming conference.

     
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2007 California Wildfires
IMAGE: ap/Mark J. Terrill

Let’s see. In the past three days Portland has been pelted with about three inches of rain and the Oregon Coast was flattened by winds topping 125 mph. Has it ever felt truer that it doesn’t do any good to bitch about the weather?

As a matter of fact, no. We should bitch.

A decade ago, the world’s leaders jetted to Kyoto, Japan, on a mission to do something more than gripe about the weather. They aimed to negotiate a compact to fight global warming.

And this week, 130 nations have sent their reps to Bali, Indonesia, on a similar sortie.

Why? Because the protocol that emerged from the Kyoto conference in 1997 hasn’t come close to turning off the carbon emissions heating our planet. It’s so bad, we’re having post-apocalyptic visions of our great-grandchildren someday splashing about in oceanfront property on Burnside.

Though 169 countries ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the United States did not. (Australia was the only other developed nation not to do so, though its newly elected prime minister inked it on Monday.)

We continued to emit greenhouse gases on the premise that the science wasn’t quite in on global warming. Meanwhile, developing mega-nations like China and India are, well, developing with all the pollution-belching that growth entails. Both nations ratified the treaty but got “get out of jail free” cards as developing nations that don’t actually have to achieve fixed emissions reduction targets.

The Kyoto Accord will expire in 2012. And we’re marking the 10th anniversary of Kyoto and the occasion of the Bali conference, a.k.a. the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with a package of stories and sidebars this week.

The collection includes nationally renowned author and environmentalist Bill McKibben analyzing why so little has been accomplished globally in the past decade. All is not gloom and doom: He also posits that the relegation of global warming deniers to the crazies’ corner—along with the creationists and the flat-earthers—might tee up the Bali conference as a last, good chance to change the weather.

And we also report on what Oregon and Portland have—and haven’t—been able to do over that same time span. Hint: We once looked like the Green Hornet when it came to acting locally. Not anymore.

You’re getting Warmer


The kyoto accord began the race to halt global warming. On its 10th annniversary, why are we barely past the starting gate?


By BILL MCkiBBEN

I remember so well the final morning hours of the Kyoto conference. The negotiations had gone on long past their scheduled evening close, and the convention-center management was frantic—a trade show for children’s clothing was about to begin. And every corner of the vast hall was still littered with the carcasses of the sleeping diplomats who had gathered in Japan to draw up a first-ever global treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

But when word finally came that an agreement had been reached, people roused themselves with real enthusiasm—lots of backslapping and hugs.

A long decade after the first powerful warnings had sounded, it seemed that humans were finally rising to the greatest challenge we’d ever faced.

The only long face in the hall belonged to William O’Keefe, chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, otherwise known as the American coal, oil and car lobby. He’d spent the week coordinating the resistance—working with Arab delegates and Russian industrialists to sabotage the emerging plan.

And he’d failed.

“It’s in freefall now,” he said, stricken. But then he straightened his shoulders and said, “I can’t wait to get back to Washington where we can get things under control.”

I thought he was whistling past the graveyard. In fact, he knew far better than the rest of us what the future would hold. He knew it would be at least another decade before anything changed.

The important physical-world reality to know about the 10 years after Kyoto is that they included the warmest years on record. All of the warmest years on record.

In that span, we’ve come to understand that not only is the globe warming, but also that we’d dramatically underestimated the speed and the size of that warming.

By now, the data from the planet outstrips the scientific prediction on an almost daily basis. Earlier this fall, for instance, the melt of Arctic sea ice beat the old record. Beat it in mid-August, and then the ice kept melting for six more weeks, losing an area the size of California every week.

“Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts,” the headline in The New York Times reported. And they were shaken by rapid changes in tundra-permafrost systems, not to mention rainforest systems, temperate-soil carbon-sequestration systems, oceanic-acidity systems.

We’ve gone from a problem for our children to a problem for right about now, as evidenced by, oh, Hurricane Katrina, California wildfires, epic droughts in the Southeast and Southwest. And that’s just the continental United States.

Go to Australia sometime: It’s gotten so dry there that native Aussie Rupert Murdoch recently announced that his News Corp. empire was going carbon neutral.

The important political-world reality to know about the 10 years after Kyoto is that we haven’t done anything.

Oh, we’ve passed all kinds of interesting state and local laws, wonderful experiments that have begun to show just how much progress is possible.

But in Washington, D.C., nothing. No laws at all. Until last year, when the GOP surrendered control of Congress, even the hearings were a joke, with “witnesses” like novelist Michael Crichton.

And as a result, our emissions have continued to increase. Worse, we’ve made not the slightest attempt to shift China and India away from using their coal. Instead of an all-out effort to provide the resources so they could go renewable, we’ve stood quietly by and watched from the sidelines as their energy trajectories shot out of control: The Chinese are now opening a new coal-fired plant every week. History will regard even the horror in Iraq as one more predictable folly next to this novel burst of irresponsibility.

If you’re looking for good news, there is some.

For one thing, we understand the technologies and the changes in habit that can help. The past 10 years have seen the advent of hybrid cars and the widespread use of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of electric generation throughout the period. Japan and then Germany have pioneered with great success the subsidy scheme required to put millions of solar panels up on rooftops.

Even more important, a real movement has begun to emerge in this country. It began with Katrina, which opened eyes. Al Gore gave those eyes something to look at: His movie made millions realize just what a pickle we were in. Many of those, in turn, became political activists. Earlier this year, six college students and I launched stepitup07.org, which has organized almost 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states. Last month, the student climate movement drew 7,000 hardworking kids from campuses all over the country for a huge conference. We’ve launched a new grassroots coalition, 1sky.org, that will push both Congress and the big Washington environmental groups.

All this work has tilted public opinion—new polls actually show energy and climate change showing up high on the list of issues that voters care about, which in turn has made the candidates take notice. All the Democrats are saying more or less the right things, though none of them, save John Edwards, is saying them with much volume.

Now it’s a numbers game. Can we turn that political energy into change fast enough to matter?

On the domestic front, the numbers look like this: We’ve got to commit to reductions in carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2050, and we’ve got to get those cuts under way fast—10 percent in just the next few years. Markets will help—if we send them the information that carbon carries a cost. Only government can do that.

Two more numbers we’re pushing for: zero, which is how many new coal-fired power plants we can afford to open in America, and 5 million, which is how many green jobs Congress needs to provide for the country’s low-skilled workers. All that insulation isn’t going to stuff itself inside our walls, and those solar panels won’t crawl up on the roofs by themselves. You can’t send the work to China, and you can’t do it with a mouse: This is the last big chance to build an economy that works for most of us.

Internationally, the task is even steeper. The Kyoto Accord, which we ignored, expires in a couple of years.

Negotiations begin this week in Bali to strike a new deal, and it’s likely to be the last bite at the apple we’ll get—miss this chance and the climate probably spirals out of control. We have a number here, too: 450, as in parts-per-million carbon dioxide. It’s the absolute upper limit on what we can pour into the atmosphere, and it will take a heroic effort to keep from exceeding it. This is a big change—even 10 years ago, we thought the safe level might be 550.

But the data is so clear: The Earth is far more finely balanced than we thought, and our peril much greater. Our foremost climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, testified under oath in a courtroom last year that if we didn’t stop short of that 450 red line, we could see the sea level rise 20 feet before the century was out. That’s civilization-challenging. That’s a carbon summer to match any nuclear winter that anyone ever dreamed about.

It’s a test, a kind of final exam for our political, economic and spiritual systems. And it’s a fair test, nothing vague or fuzzy about it. Chemistry and physics don’t bargain. They don’t compromise. They don’t meet us halfway. We’ll do it or we won’t. And 10 years from now, we’ll know which path we chose.

Bill McKibben , a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is an author and environmentalist who frequently writes about global warming. McKibben’s essay was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

How Oregon pioneered the fight against climate change—then fell behind.


By James Pitkin

One week before world leaders gathered a decade ago to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten was 67 miles away in Nagoya, Japan, at a meeting of local government leaders from around the world.

The powwow focused on what local governments could do to tackle a worldwide environmental crisis. And though Sten was still a political infant—he was 30 years old and it was his first year in office—he felt confident enough to argue that the wonks about to gather at Kyoto weren’t thinking big enough.

“I was actually making the case, based on our experience, that the Protocol could have gone even further than it did,” says Sten, who oversees City Hall’s climate-change policy.

Sten, after all, was from Portland—the first city in America to adopt a global warming strategy, four years earlier in 1993. It was the start of a visionary effort by the state and city to put us at the forefront of the fight against climate change—a race in which we’ve now lost the lead after making admirable gains.

Since Kyoto, Multnomah County emissions have held steady at around 10 million metric tons per year despite the county gaining nearly 17 percent in population over that period. (Similar emissions figures are unavailable for Portland alone. But weather stats are available. They show average temperatures in Portland have gone up 0.02 degrees Fahrenheit since Kyoto.)

Six months before Kyoto, Oregon became the first state in the nation to pass a law aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, by requiring new power plants to offset excess CO2 by investing in programs that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. From that time until 2004—the most recent data available—statewide emissions stayed roughly the same.

Meanwhile, Portland continued forging ahead with its own sustainability measures.

In 2000, the city created the Office of Sustainable Development, which combined its energy, recycling and green-building programs. That office was the first of its kind in any American city. In 2001, Portland adopted a Green Building Policy that required city-owned buildings—and buildings funded by the Portland Development Commission—to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified for energy efficiency.

Jeff Cogen, a current Multnomah County commissioner and former liaison to Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development in City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s office, says the Green Building Policy boosted Portland’s economy and made the city the epicenter of the cutting-edge new sustainable-building industry. “The market exploded,” Cogen says.

Yet any measurable impact—positive or negative—to the city’s economy remains unclear because there are dozens of factors that drive or retard an economy. By one traditional measure of economic strength, employment, the city has seen only modest gains since passage of the Green Building Policy. Unemployment in the Portland area that year was 6 percent, according to the Oregon Employment Department. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent in the first 10 months of this year, the most recent data available.

If Portland and Oregon were already recognized as leaders on tackling climate change, that role only grew after President Bush and the then-Republican-controlled Congress refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

In 2003, Sten was again invited to talk climate change, this time by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives on a five-city tour of Australia. America’s shame in spiking Kyoto had only boosted Portland’s standing—making the city an unofficial ambassador for Americans who saw climate change as a threat.

The year after Sten visited Australia saw the birth of the Governor’s Advisory Group on Global Warming —the first of its kind in any state. On April 13, 2005, Gov. Ted Kulongoski—who has staked his political legacy on addressing climate change—became the first governor to announce a greenhouse-gas reduction strategy, beating California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by exactly seven weeks.

Kulongoski’s plan was an “initiative,” Schwarzenegger’s was a “goal”—neither required legislative approval. Kulongoski’s aim was to cut statewide energy use 20 percent by 2025. The Californator tackled greenhouse-gas emissions themselves, with the goal of reaching 1990 levels by 2020—a 15 percent reduction from California’s emissions at the time.

That moment marked the zenith of Oregon’s claim to the No. 1 spot in America’s fight against global warming. California has since taken a clear lead, says Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a Portland-based nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.

“There’s no question that, at least legislatively, they moved ahead in Sacramento,” Duncan says. Washington, too, has surpassed Oregon in some respects, putting strict limits this year on carbon emissions from new power plants—a step Oregon has yet to take.

In 2006, the Golden State made history as the first to set into law a firm timeline capping greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon’s Legislature followed suit this year with a less ambitious batch of bills pushed by Kulongoski that promote renewable energy and biofuels.

The effort played well with the public. But critics said it came at the expense of more meaningful legislation that would have put firm limits on emissions or created the West Coast’s first European-style carbon cap-and-trade system. That bill died a quiet death after one committee hearing.

It was a hard fight rallying votes for the renewable-energy bills, and it became clear there wasn’t enough political steam to pass the cap-and-trade bill in the same session, says Jeremiah Baumann, lobbyist for Environment Oregon.

“We went into it knowing full well that this may be too much to ask for,” Baumann says.

David Van’t Hof, Kulongoski’s climate change adviser, defends the choice to delay a vote on a cap-and-trade system, calling the renewable-energy portfolio a crucial step.

A regional cap-and-trade system is in the works among seven Western states plus the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba, using an Oregon-developed proposal as a blueprint. It’s expected to go before the Oregon Legislature in 2009.

Yet the conclusion remains inescapable that Oregon is lagging.

California’s renewable-energy standard takes force in 2010, 15 years sooner than Oregon’s. California’s emissions rules have more teeth (Oregon’s have none). Like Washington, California has a power-plant performance standard. And Oregon’s tailpipe-pollution rule, like Washington’s, was copied from California’s.

Baumann says there are two main reasons Oregon has slipped. First, the Legislature before Democrats took control of both houses in the 2006 election delayed action while California lapped Oregon. Second, lobbyists from the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, the Oregon Restaurant Association and segments of Associated Oregon Industries have lobbied against renewable energy and climate-change legislation.

ICNU executive director Michael Early says his trade group—whose members include Intel, Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade—was concerned that the added costs to utilities of mandated new renewable energy was uncertain.

“Our interests were in trying to shape the bill so that it provided meaningful and adequate safeguards for customers,” Early says.

In the end, ICNU got some of its requests added to the bill, but not a proposed cap on added rates from renewable-energy costs, which was the focus of its efforts.

What makes Oregon’s fall from the vanguard particularly hard to accept is that Oregon can boast fighting climate change long before Kyoto.

In 1980, when Congress passed the U.S. Northwest Power Act, it included a first-of-its-kind rule that forced the Bonneville Power Administration to consider long-term costs—including pollution—when making new energy acquisitions.

That rule spread to other utilities around the country, and eventually took into account pollution from greenhouse gases. But it was only included in the first place because the city of Portland and the state of Oregon insisted, says Duncan, who lobbied for the rule as then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt’s administrative assistant for policy.

“I spent a lot of time on red-eye flights in the mid- to late-’70s negotiating that,” Duncan recalls.

As the Bali conference begins this week, what Portland and Oregon have done locally are nowhere near what we need to do to meet last month’s recommendations by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. It’s not even on track to meet goals set by the 2007 Legislature—to cut emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

“We know that this is nowhere close to adequate to solve the problem,” says Bob Doppelt, director of the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative. “Oregon is a leader, but it’s still figuring out how to make this happen.”


BLOWING STEAM


The amount of verbal hot air about climate change emitted by politicians and policy wonks at international meet-ups is probably a major contributor to global warming in itself. But the issue also affects Oregonians in all walks of life—from the vegan in line at Whole Foods, to the Salem lobbyist who just blew by you in a Lexus. We talked to a few of them about how global warming has changed their lives—or hasn’t.

Harry Peterson-Nedry , owner of Chehalem Winery in Newberg

“We have over the last decade or so seen the climate change, and it actually has been a positive thing at this point. Over the last 11 years we have had enough heat during the growing season to where things have ripened predictably and early. We know at the same time that if things continue to creep [upward], we have to investigate new sites for planting (pinot noir and riesling) or plant different varieties.”

Chad Miller , owner of Food Fight Grocery vegan store

“I think that people are aware [that veganism is touted as a solution to global warming]. That’s not my motivating factor for being a vegan, but a lot of big groups are using that as an emphasis point right now, when people are giving a shit about their carbon footprint and all that. ‘Look, it’s not just a bunch of animal-rights people! It’s the U.N.!’ I think for the most part, it’s not the people I know’s main reason for doing it. It’s just kind of an added bonus.”

Michael Davis , coastal real-estate broker in Gearhart

“I hear more concern about tsunami things after that thing happened in Indonesia, but I haven’t heard anything about rising sea levels. Still, the most valuable properties are the stuff that’s oceanfront. They’re right on the beach. The only ones that express any kind of concern are the ones that have maybe some concern about tsunamis.”

Dave Tragethon , spokesman for Mount Hood Meadows ski area

“We’re concerned about the long-term effects of climate change, but we believe there are a lot stronger weather influencers in our location, being so close to the ocean, so close to the gorge. We have our own micro-climate here. So the impact of climate change on a global basis is very subtle. We’re much more affected by the La Niñas and El Niños and those types of patterns.”

Scott Bolton , lobbyist for PacifiCorp

“California and Washington have basically abandoned coal. Two of three coastal states have said they don’t want this. That’s changed our perspective pretty dramatically. As a six-state utility, it’s not the optimal environment, where we have different state policies. Definitely we would like to see a more comprehensive federal approach to carbon regulation. It becomes a real balancing act to try to meet each state’s interests and keep costs as low as possible.”

Brian Doherty , Oregon lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association

“We are investing in biodiesel refineries, we are investing in wind farms. We need every molecule of energy we can find, wherever it is. There is definitely a lot of change going on; we are trying to adapt to that. What is the best answer? How are we going to be getting around in 2030? We want to be the answer.”

George Taylor, head of the Oregon Climate Service at OSU (and former “state climatologist,” until he was unceremoniously and very publicly dumped from that post—which may or may not have ever officially existed—by Gov. Ted Kulongoski early this year for questioning the science behind global warming)

“I’m not a policy guy, I’m a scientist. I’m also being very cautious about saying anything because the publicity—beginning with that article two years ago [“Hot or Not,” WW , Aug. 24, 2005]—has been very, very damaging to me.”


Ten years before Kyoto, scientists working through the World Meteorological Society and the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the science of climate change. By 1995, the IPCC concluded that there was a “discernible human impact on the climate.”

Developing countries, like India and China, are not required to meet specific emission targets during Kyoto’s first compliance period (2008-12).

Although the United States never officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty was never sent to the Senate for ratification. From 1990 to 2005, U.S. emissions have increased by 16.3 percent. The Kyoto Protocol requires a U.S. reduction to 7 percent below 1990 levels.

Among European nations, only the United Kingdom and Sweden are now achieving real reductions in greenhouse gases. The most significant emissions reductions in the last 10 years have come from the collapse of industrial enterprises in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

 
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