United Nations

Lack of clean water kills more people than war; it's also choking Beijing in polluted dust

It's clear that climate change is going to be the story of the century, but today's news brings the reminder that an intertwined and nearly equally important story will be the lack of fresh water. Two developments highlight this trend today, on World Water Day:

1) From Beijing comes Christopher Bodeen's dispatch for the Associated Press relating how the Chinese capital is under attack by a dust storm blown off of the desert hundreds of miles away in country's interior in Inner Mongolia, where the Gobi desert is expanding. The cause, the AP reports, is overgrazing, deforestation, drought and urban sprawl. One has to wonder if climate change shouldn't be added to that list. The tiny dust particles mix with industrial pollution to cause a miserable dust-soot combination that blankets Beijing, working its way into homes through openings as small as a keyhole. The Chinese have tried to fight the problem by planting vegetation to hold the soil, but it isn't working. Now they're working on plans to pump lots of water from the wetter south of the country. Lotsa luck, guys. 

2) The United Nations issued a statement  (PDF) pointing out that more people die each year from the lack of clean water than are killed in violence of any kind. Many of these people are children under the age of 5. The UN says that pollution in its traditional forms is responsible for some of these, but so is degradation of watersheds through timber-cutting, covering the ground with hard surfaces that don't allow rainfall to soak in, and other modern practices. Said the UN:

"Preventing the pollution of water resources by reducing or eliminating contaminants at the source is almost always the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to protect water quality."

Obama's State of the Union punts on climate change... but what did you expect?

rm iwest mugWell, President Obama certainly did go on at some length tonight in his just-concluded State of the Union address. But he once again failed to elevate the climate issue to urgency. I have to agree with David Roberts over at Grist.org: "Pretty weak tea." (Hat tip to Roberts for posting the transcript of that part of the speech before Obama was even done talking.)

Now, some of our faithful correspondents and even some friends thought it curious that Dateline Earth faulted Obama for falling short on the climate and energy issue in his inaugural address a year ago, after which we held forth thusly:

 That is not the speech of a man who intends to launch a World War II-style domestic campaign -- think Rosie the Riveter and the Manahattan Project. And that's what scientists are saying we'll need.

He did it again tonight. The president -- wisely -- started out talking about jobs or, as we've put it before, "Fighting climate change = ending the recession." He was clearly aware that Americans are saying in polls now that climate is pretty low on their list of concerns. And just a day before the talk, Republican Lindsey Graham caved on Cap'n Trade, provoking Roberts, for one, to accept that we probably won't be going down that road this year, if ever in Obama's presidency.

But the sheer brevity of what Obama had to say tonight portrays a president so pummeled by problems that on climate, he punted.

The short but interesting (and climate-clobbering) life of methane, that *other* greenhouse gas

rm iwest mugRichard Harris' NPR piece today on methane's climate-clobbering effects jolted me to remember a post I planned but that went by the wayside when I got so busy editing our coverage of last month's big climate conference in Copenhagen.

During the big UNFCCC negotiations, an op-ed of huge import came out but didn't get as much attention as you might think, considering it was co-authored by Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Mohamed El-Ashray, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is important, they acknowledged, but a big focus in the next few years should be methane, because it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. And methane converts to carbon dioxide after 10 or 12 years -- compared to CO2's residence time in the atmosphere that's measured in hundreds of years.

Methane's quite a bit easier to control, too (for now -- more on that shortly). So, to buy time to invent better ways to reduce CO2 emissions,  focus on methane, Watson and El-Ashray argue:

If we need to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers, reducing methane can make an immediate impact. Compared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. Where we stop methane emissions, cooling follows within a decade, not centuries. That could make the difference for many fragile systems on the brink.

Both Harris' piece and the op-ed point out that controlling methane also helps fight ground-level ozone, a public health threat.

InvestigateWest Copenhagen climate-treaty coverage points up need for independent journalism

Whew! Fifty-one posts -- all but three in just the last two weeks. Dateline Earth readers got to hear from an Arctic tribal elder, an Indian-turned-American nature photographer, Ethiopian political activists, native-rights campaigners from the Amazon and the grassy plains of Ecuador – as well as the European and American officials who dominate this country’s news diet.
rm iwest mugWe stretched. The InvestigateWest team’s coverage of the global climate treaty negotiations that just wrapped up in Copenhagen was a mammoth undertaking for our small start-up news agency – but one that amply demonstrated the need for independent journalism. It was an effort worth every bleary-eyed late-night hour, every marathon Skype session, every up-before-December’s-dawn morning.

It’s unlikely InvestigateWest will be dashing off to a lot of international meetings. We were fortunate in this case to have the assistance of four able young journalists who raised the funds to get themselves to Denmark. Then they went on to deliver journalism that wasn’t available from many – and in a few cases, any – of the thousands of other journalists who covered the talks.

They did this despite being denied access to the conference center where international delegates were meeting until the last day of the two-week conference.  

[caption id="attachment_7653" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="InvestigateWest photographer Christopher Crow is arrested for the second time. He was held for 10 hours.

Ethiopian activists: PM Zenawi in Copenhagen to collect cash, not fight climate change

By Alexander Kelly and Blair Kelly

COPENHAGEN -- In this, the third and shortest of our video interviews with Ethiopians who traveled to Denmark to protest against their prime minister, Meles Zenawi, a demonstrator hints that climatic conditions are a factor in the unrest in his homeland, the Ethiopian region of Ogaden:

Anti-Zenawi Ethiopian protesters: Why is Obama meeting with murderer?

By Alexander Kelly and Blair Kelly

COPENHAGEN -- This is the second of three parts of our interviews with Ethiopians who traveled 3,600 miles* to Denmark from their home country to denounce Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He is acting as spokesman for the  African Union in talks to reach a global climate treaty.

Two protesters hold forth here, including one who calls Zenawi a "murderer" and questions President Barack Obama's willingness to deal with Zenawi. We continue to await comment from Ethiopia's consulate in Seattle:

* Due to an editing error, this post initially misstated the distance from Ethiopia to Denmark.

Zenawi protesters at Copenhagen climate talks: Ethiopia raping women, environment, and killing

By Alexander Kelly and Blair Kelly
COPENHAGEN -- This is the first of three videos showing the Ogadenian protests against the Ethiopian government and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. This protester alleges widespread killing and raping by the Ethiopian military, as well as environmental damage.

We heard earlier that the Ogadenians were seeking to set up an autonomous region, like the Kurds in northern Iraq, but these people appear to be calling for full independence.

See our earlier post for details. Our efforts to contact the Ethiopian consultate in Seattle for comment still have not been successful:

Climate "deal" reached in Copenhagen; see great pics, dramatic video of the final hours here

rm-iwest-mug-150x150Well, the delegates to the international climate talks in Copenhagen for the most part are headed for the airport or already winging their way home. Presumably you've seen the coverage; we won't try to duplicate that here, although I'll be back Monday with some reflections. We have some great photos that have been rotating through InvestigateWest's billboard slideshow that I'm going to feature below, plus Blair Kelly's video of the last major protest, which includes dramatic scenes of police beating demonstrators -- some with their hands in the air -- with batons. Activists (perhaps ironically, considering they were shut down by the Copenhagen cops) dubbed that protest "Reclaim the Power."

If you're interested in a few tidbits you may have missed in the way of denouement on the negotiations, check out:

  • The notes covering the final United Nations plenary in Copenhagen, courtesy of Andrew Revkin's Dot.Earth blog at the NYT (we'll miss him -- he's taking a buyout, but I hear he may keep doing the blog), and 
  • Bill McKibben's critique of an NYT story on the Group of 77, defending them of course. I have to say that the most remarkable aspect of the talks for me was the way the poor nations made it known they are not going to be pushed around any more.