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."

Activists shine light on issues getting short shrift inside Copenhagen climate negotiations

The scene outside the global climate talks in Copenhagen is a cornucopia of innovative artwork, inspiring panel discussions and provocative characters with fascinating stories to tell, the InvestigateWest team reports.

In fact, there were so many interesting events and people that the sheer number made it hard to focus on any one today, InvestigateWest correspondent Alexander Kelly told me by Skype just now.

But he’s focused enough to know that he will be doing a piece on the critique of cap-and-trade, which many economists and politicians promote but which many environmentalists in Copenhagen this week oppose.

[caption id="attachment_6879" align="alignleft" width="226" caption="In this panel discussion at a symposium known as KlimatForum09, Hanne Marstrand Strong, president of the Manitou Foundation, based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado speaks of her group, which provides land grants and financial support to religious organizations and environmental groups. InvestigateWest photo by Mark Malijan."]In this panel discussion at a symposium known as KlimatForum09, Hanne Marstrand Strong, president of the Manitou Foundation, based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado speaks of her group, which provides land grants and financial support to religious organizations and environmental groups. InvestigateWest photo by Mark Malijan.[/caption]

And he’s considering writing about ocean acidification, which is a big concern to the maritime community of the Pacific Northwest.

Folks -- are there climate-related topics you’d like to hear about that probably are being discussed in Copenhagen?

Lester Brown lays out how to solve the climate mess, and how we'll suffer if we don't (Hungry? Just wait)

You listen to Lester Brown, and you have to wonder what the big fuss is all about at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen. I mean, the guy is saying we don't really have to fight over this, because the technologies available right now could cut greenhouse gas emissions by ... drumroll, please... 80 percent by 2020. Yes! (It really puts into perspective President Obama's pledge today to cut emissions 17 percent over the same time period, eh?)  

[caption id="attachment_6332" align="alignright" width="226" caption="Lester Brown "]Lester Brown [/caption]

Now, we've written about Brown before, and we may be guilty of featuring him entirely too much, but the man is talking sense. Today he was doing that right here in Rain City on KUOW's Weekday with Steve Scher, revealing how this seemingly magical transformation can happen. A couple of quick examples from his latest tome*, the unassumingly named Plan B 4.0 --  Mobilizing to Save Civilization

  • You want energy efficiency? We got energy efficiency. Replace the world's incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and you get a 75 percent reduction in energy use. Replace them with Light Emitting Diode, or LED, lights and combine that with smart technology that, for instance, turns lights out when a room is empty. Then the savings is 90 percent. (Los Angeles is replacing its 130,000 streetlights with LEDs at a savings of $11 million a year.

U.S.-China climate pact: Why so late? We try to ask Al Gore (with a little help from KUOW)

The news today on the climate front is a pretty big honkin' deal: President Obama, on a visit to China, signed an agreement with China calling for the United States to offer a proposal for near-term cuts in greenhouse gases. In return, China will say what it plans to do about not frying the planet to kingdom come.

(I know: It doesn't sound earth-shattering. But it's a big enough deal that it's currently topping Google News. You have to realize that China and America are No. 1 and No. 2 in the list of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.)

If you want more on today's developments, I recommend Jake Schmidt's piece over at

But here at Dateline Earth, I can't help but ask: Why didn't the Clinton-Gore administration convince China to show such good faith? At the time of the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, even some members of the U.S. delegation to the climate talks knew that selling the deal to the U.S. Senate meant convincing senators it would spawn expanding alternative-energy industry that would make money for Americans.  (At least in part by selling the stuff to China.)

Yes, the global political and economic scene was different then. But it seems the idea that Americans might benefit to some degree had to be sold. And then an R&D rampup had to happen. But it wasn't. And it didn't.

In fact, I may actually get to ask Al Gore about this, courtesy of the good folks at KUOW, the public radio news-and-information station. Gore, the leader of the American delegation to the 1997 Kyoto talks, is appearing from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday on The Conversation with Ross Reynolds. (It's at 94.9* FM if you're here in Rain City.

India, China make climate pact as insurers demand global action in 2009

Events are beginning to move at warp speed as the December talks aimed at reaching a global climate-change treaty swing into view not far ahead on the calendar:

  • India and China have inked a pact committing each country to doing stuff to combat climate change, my old colleagues at United Press International report. Recall that the Kyoto Protocol's absence of emissions limits on developing nations -- and especially those two countries -- was the ostensible reason the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected the treaty. This five-year deal between China and India doesn't have a lot of teeth in it. The significance is that it signals that India won't bolt from the so-called Group of 77 developing nations, as had been rumored.  ( also cobbled together a short item based on wire reports.)
  • President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke by phone this week about the climate talks, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, quoted in the same New Dehli-datelined UPI dispatch that reported the China-India deal.
  • We reported from the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference that Obama administration officials already were losing hope for a climate deal in Copenhagen. Well, now it looks like the rest of the world is also starting to think about Plan B.'s Jeff Tollefson reports that those pushing for a deal have "tempered (their) expectations and begun to look for a graceful exit. ... Even staunch optimists are now rethinking their definition of success in Copenhagen." A lot will depend on an upcoming negotiating session Nov.

China would wind up a winner with wind power

chinese-flagAmazing as it may sound, that two-coal-fired-power-plants-a-week building orgy going on in China could prove to be completely unnecessary.

It was on Twitter that I discovered a kinda wonky news service that calls itself SciDevNet (I think I've got the capitalization right...)  that just ran a story headlined "Wind power could blow away coal in China."

Do tell! This could be significant. 

Seems that by 2030 China could be getting all its juice from wind turbines. There is a tradeoff, though: They'd have to cover an area three-quarters the size of Texas with those big propellers.

As with the idea of blanketing much of the United States' southwestern deserts with solar arrays, you have to wonder what kind of environmental effects that might have. For example, what will this do to migrating birds? It's a question we've been asking ourselves here at InvestigateWest as we report on the Pacific Flyway.

But when you consider what an environmental and human disaster Chinas' Three Gorges Dam is becoming, and the population growth the country is facing, wind turbines seem like something that's at least got to be considered. (What about solar? Folks -- are there downsides to solar other than the fact that it uses water in the desert? We're all ears.)

SciDevNet's Shanshan Li and Yidong Gong tell us that the study they're writing about, by Chinese and U.S.

Rita Hibbard's picture

LA Times investigates Chinese babies stolen for foreign adoptions - good stuff

The Los Angeles Times and reporter Barbara Demick came out yesterday with a gripping story on Chinese babies stolen from their loving parents, then adopted out, mostly to Americans. The motive - the $3,000 in cash adoptive parents pay in fees to the orphanages.

Demick notes that since the early 1990s, more than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted abroad, the majority to the United States, and the story is told that the babies, mostly girls, are abandoned by parents because of the preference for boys and Chinese restrictions on family size. That is true in most cases, Dimick writes, but she documents harrowing stories told by parents of children taken by coercion, fraud and kidnapping by all-powerful and sometimes corrupt family planning officials. It's a powerful read that reflects reporting that has started to emerge in the Chinese press,  including the Hong Kong-based South China Post, that concludes that doubts are  beginning to ripple through the international adoption community about the legitimacy of some Chinese adoptions.

"Our children were exported abroad like they were factory products," said Yang Libing, a migrant worker from Hunan province whose daughter was seized in 2005. He has since learned that she is in the United States.

Demick describes children taken by force from parents who did not want to give them up, including when elderly parents were babysitting, when mothers were alone, and in one case, when young parents were told their child was being temporarily removed and would be returned when certain paperwork was completed. The parents never saw the child again.

"Everybody in the village adored her. She had big eyes like saucers and a smile for everybody she saw," said Cao, the mother.

U.S. missed the boat on China solar help

If the reports we're hearing about U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's trip to China this week are accurate, it's another reminder of how badly the Clinton-Gore administration botched the Kyoto Protocol.

[caption id="attachment_3613" align="alignright" width="160" caption="The globe-trottin' senator herownself"]The globe-trottin' senator herownself[/caption]

Remember that the idea coming out of Kyoto among American negotiators was that the U.S. could invent a lot of technology to reduce emissions, and then sell it to the developing world. When the Senate unanimously rejected the treaty, though, research and development of greenhouse-friendly energy technologies -- predictably -- did not take off in this country.

But apparently it did in China. According what Cantwell told participants at a green-tech conference in Shanghai, 650,000 of the 800,000 jobs related to solar energy worldwide are in China. Oh, well, that's one opportunity missed for the United States.

Overall, though, the tone at the conference was that if Americans can be assured that China will crack down on violations of intellectual property rights, the two countries can make beautiful technology together, according to a dispatch by Elaine Kurtenbach of the Associated Press. Said Cantwell:

Technology exchange and intellectual property protection are wrapped together. It's safe to say we have a lot of work to go. ... If we can deal with these intellectual property issues, it's huge. Hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created in both countries.

Now, keep in mind that as she spoke, it's a fair bet that somewhere on the streets of Shanghai, someone was selling pirated copies of Inglourious Basterds.