Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Western Debt to “Arabick” Science

In the 17th century, the Europeans rediscovered many of the “Arabick” scientific writings, particularly the writings of 11th century scholar Ibn al-Haytham. At the Museum of Islamic Art, a special exhibition “Arabick Roots” explores the impact these Arabic writings had on the Western scientists, and notes that in some cases “scientists and Arabists became one, as, particularly among astronomers, it became vital to directly read original Arabick texts.” 

Another influence of the Arab culture came through the trade routes, and coffeehouses became particularly popular in the late 17th century.  In London, the coffeehouses were nicknamed “penny universities,” as “for the price of a cup of coffee” one could “hear the great minds of the day discuss the big issues.”  London, Tripoli and Constantinople exchanged ambassadors, and the Royal Society elected one Libyan and two Moroccan ambassadors to their select body by virtue of their interest in science.

As one enters the exhibit, there is a kiosk where one can hear a welcome from one of the female members of the Qatar COP 18 presidential team. Relating the exhibit back to COP 18, she welcomes the opportunity for Qatar to help advance science and climate change, and to lead the debate for policies, green technology and capacity building.

For more, check out
And, absolutely check out the remarkable museum itself:

Why Qatar?

Her Excellency Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, daughter of the Emir, spoke at the panel on the role of women in climate change on Tuesday, and she indicated that much as the women want to see things through a different lens, so do the people of Qatar. In some ways, it seems incongruous to have the climate talks taking place in an oil-producing country with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions.  Her Excellency explained that Qatar is in the process of change itself, especially as it moves from an energy-based economy to a knowledge-based economy.  While she didn’t elaborate, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary to the UNFCCC, pointed out that Qatar “fought” for the right to host the conference and put forward many good arguments. 

In many ways, Qatar seems to be behind in terms of environmental policies.  Just this week, they have started a pilot program for city-wide recycling.  Oil is clearly a cheap commodity, with a 15-minute taxi ride costing only $3.50.  SUVs are commonplace.  Yes, they are the second-richest country in the world with the highest per capita emissions.

Despite this, Qatar does seem committed to change.  They have always had to worry about water – they have to rely on desalinated water for all domestic use.  For agricultural use, farmers use water from the aquifer, but they are using 250 million cubic meters/year, and the recharge rate is only 56 million cubic meters/year.  In 2008, global food prices shot up rapidly, and as they import 90% of their food, this was very alarming.  That year, the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP) was established, and they are actively exploring ways to ensure food and water security.  For water, they are moving towards using renewable energy for the desalination process, with excess water being diverted to the aquifer. They are also exploring different agricultural practices, including man-made “oases” with tiered plantings (trees providing shade for lower crops) and urban gardens.

Much of the new construction is “green” and LEED-certified, including the convention center where COP 18 meets.  Qatar also won the bid for the World Cup in soccer for 2022, and they are designing the required new stadiums to be “carbon neutral,” relying heavily on solar panels for the energy to keep the stadiums at a cool 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  

While much of the world will still need to be convinced, I can only be hopeful that Qatar will take the lead in moving from fossil fuels to renewables, and from an energy-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Like the rest of the world, they recognize that they are vulnerable to climate change, and they are taking steps for mitigation and adaptation.

Starless Nights

For the second night that I’ve noticed, there are no stars visible in the sky.  Yes, there’s light pollution, but mostly it’s the dust. No clouds to speak of, just dust.  The moon is out, and Jupiter is visible in the sky.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The State of the Climate

At each COP, there has been a United States Center, which presents a series of talks highlighting some of the latest research and findings from the governmental organizations, notably NASA, NOAA and the State Department.  For those of you wanting to participate online, check out their events at  The events are streamed online with an opportunity for questions via twitter feed.   Upcoming presentations include: The New Normal? Extreme Events Today and What That Can Teach Us About Adaption for Tomorrow; Climate Change, Agriculture, and Drought – Lessons from the 2012 Growing Season; Understanding Climate Change and the Redistribution of Heat, Winds, Water, and Worries; Driving a Low Carbon Future: The Enhancing Capacity for Low Emissions Development Strategies Program; and U.S. Climate Finance 2010-2012: Meeting the Fast Start Commitment.

Another feature of the US Center is the Hyperwall, providing data visualizations on a 3x3 panel video wall. While we watched the “State of Flux – World of Change,” other presentations include “Eyes on the Earth (3-D presentation),” “Looking Back and Looking Down” and “Landsat: 40 Years of Watching the Earth’s Surface Change – Water, Forest, Food, Urban Growth, Glaciers & Ice.”  

Tuesday’s presentation was “Taking the Pulse of the Planet: the State of the Climate.”  Presenting via Skype, Mike Brewer and Derek Arndt introduced the key charts that were published in the Annual State of the Climate Report for 2011. With 387 authors from 48 countries, this report tracks 43 climate indicators, both for 2011 and longer term. 

In terms of climate change, the changes are consistent with a warming world.  Sea level, temperatures and land temperatures are rising, while sea ice, snow, and glaciers are diminishing.  Two new climate variables were added for the 2011 report: ocean acidity (increasing) and albedo (decreasing).  They noted that there is “Arctic amplification,” with more rapid changes in the Arctic, likely because of the positive feedback mechanisms.  There was a record set for ocean temperatures, along with an increase in the hydrological cycle.  In the past ten decades, the average increase was just over .1° F; in the past three decades, the average increase was just over .3° F. At the end of the presentation one of the audience members summed up the mood: “How depressing.”

And the winner is ...

At the end of every day, crowds gather for the “Fossil of the Day” award ceremony.  Last year, one of our delegates, Corey Husic, accepted the award on behalf of the United States. []
On the first day, the 1st place award went jointly to the USA, Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand for their unwillingness to participate in a legally binding, multilateral rules based regime.  New Zealand also won 2nd  place for having participated in negotiations but then refusing to put in a target for a second commitment period.  The second day’s 1st place award went to Turkey, the world’s largest investor in coal at the same time they are asking for more funds in climate negotiations. 2nd place went to the EU for putting in a target of a reduction of 20% for 2020, having already essentially achieved that through reductions of 17.5% and offsets.  

why this decade matters

At the COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009), the United States supported what amounts to a “pledge and review” system, where parties would make voluntary pledges, with a shared commitment to keeping the world from warming more than 2 degrees centigrade.  The following year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) authored a study showing that with the pledges on the table, there was still a 5 – 9 gigaton gap.  Simply put, the pledges were not ambitious enough to meet the emission reduction targets.  The “emissions gap” is now a commonplace term here at the COP, and the UNEP estimates the gap will between 8 and 13 gigatons by 2020 if nothing more is done.  The emissions have continued to increase from 40 billion tons in 2000 to the current 50 billion tons, and 58  billion tons expected by 2020 with no further action.

This year, there is another study that has been widely discussed.  Published by the World Bank a few weeks before the COP and just over a week before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey shorelines, this report reviews the scientific literature and outlines the impacts and risks to our world if the average temperature rises by 4 degrees centigrade. Extreme weather events will be the new normal. The report is available online at:  Essentially, even with the pledges on the table, we are likely to warm 4 degrees unless more ambitious targets are in place.

In What Next,, Kevin Anderson has written that a responsible way to approach climate change is to “mitigate for 2° C and to plan for 4° C.”  His colleague Alice Bows observed that we are, in fact, doing just the opposite: “mitigating for 4° C (by doing almost nothing to reduce emissions), while only preparing for 2° C.”  What might this look like? Again, check out the World Bank report. 

Clearly this decade matters, and if a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol is determined, let’s all hope it’s ambitious.

Just a typical day at a COP meeting

On Day 2 of COP18, I caught the bus at 6:50 a.m. for a somewhat harrowing drive to the QNCC (Qatar National Convention Center).  Traffic is quite congested here, and drivers don’t seem to pay much attention to the typical road etiquette that I am familiar with.  (I keep wondering why there are so many large SUVs with only one person in them on the roads in a flat desert city.)  Arriving at the center, there is the routine of going through security – comparable to most airports – and then long treks through the cavernous facility.
Inside the QNCC
First stop, the bank of computers which work fairly well in the morning before there are too many users trying to tap into the wireless system.  A check of the Daily Programme (online this year to save paper) allows me to plan the events that I will attend throughout the day.  Then off to the RINGOs meeting.

RINGOs stands for the Research and Independent NGOs which is one of nine formally recognized constituency or focal groups within the UNFCCC observers or civil society.  This group is comprised of organizations “engaged in independent research and analysis that help to develop strategies to address the causes and consequences of climate change.”[1]  All of the member organizations are not-for-profit and play a bridging role between science and policy, advocating only for the use of the best science in the policy-making process.  The constituency has an 8-member steering committee of which I am a new member.

After introductions and some announcements, individuals volunteered to monitor various issues throughout the week to report back on to the group at the next meeting.  It is at this point that you remember what an alphabet soup is involved in the UNFCCC process; KP, REDD+, CDM, AWG-LCA, IIED, SBI, CAN, ITSD, and UNESCO were just a few of the acronyms thrown around this morning.  And there is plenty of other jargon:  shared vision, carbon capture, frameworks, capacity building, adaptation, and so on.  At this point in a COP meeting, the high level negotiations have yet to commence; mostly there are work sessions and consultations for the various ad hoc working groups (committees).

After attending a few COP meetings, you start to recognize familiar faces from around the world, and there is always a chance to meet new people involved in a broad range of interesting activities.  For example, today I met the following:
  • Suzi Anstine (from Florida) and Gregg Walker (from Oregon) who work with Mediators Without Borders, and who both have connections to Pennsylvania.  Suzi told me about her pre-COP trip to Oman to stay with the Bedouins in the desert.  Perhaps less exotic, but interesting, Gregg told me about his work in the Allegheny Forest in Pennsylvania before fracking for natural gas became feasible and about the history of the purchase of the mineral, coal, and gas rights on this tract of land. 
  • I had a conversation with Simon Molesworth who is the Executive Chairman of International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) of the UK – an organization that is working to preserve traditional cultures around the world.  He also has a faculty appointment at La Trobe University (Institute for Social and Environmental Sustainability) in Australia, and he told me about how sustainability efforts have been infused into the culture of that institution.  Their campus theme is “Creating Futures” which I really like.  (It's "brilliant" as the UK youth would say!)
  • I met Niclas Hällström, editor of an excellent publication entitled “What Next: Climate, Development and Equity ”.[2]  He was interested in what I thought of the book and how I might use it in a course on climate change issues.  We also had a long discussion on carbon trading – something neither of us believes to be an effective long-term mitigation strategy.
  • As I started to leave the exhibition hall, a large brilliant poster filled with colorful images obviously drawn by children caught my attention.  They were winning postcards from 17,000 entries from schools in Bangladesh – all with a theme of climate change.  I met Sareka Jahan who works for the British Council on such projects in Bangladesh who also told me about their “climate4classrooms” and the “From the Himalayan to the Bay of Bengal” projects.[3] I told her about a colleague, Sonia Aziz, who works on issues of arsenic in drinking water in Bangladesh, a country considered to be extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 
  • I also met Claire McNulty, who also works at the British Council, and we talked about ways that the RINGOS vast network of expertise might be best leveraged.
All this before 11:00 a.m.! 
Networking at COP meetings is critical
After lunch and a check of email, I decided to spend my afternoon attending the events of the first Gender Day at a COP meeting (more on that in a separate blog post).  For now, suffice it to say that I had the opportunity to meet the COP17 president, Maiti Nkoana-Mashabane, and Mary Robertson, former president of Ireland and UN Human Rights… and attended a lovely reception to celebrate the launch of the book “Thuto ya Batho (Teachings from the People): Women Adapt to Climate Change”. 


COP17 President Ms, Maiti Nkoana-Mashabane
Maiti Nkoane-Mashabane and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres with the new publication

After attending two panel sessions of experts on gender and climate issues ranging from adaptation in subsistence farming to developing female leadership on climate change financing on the international level, I headed to the U.S. Center and attended a presentation by NASA scientists on modeling and visualization of satellite data on a Hyperwall (a synchronized series of large plasma screens).  The images showed changes in the flow rates of ice pack melts in Greenland and Antarctica, the change in sea ice coverage in the Arctic, the increase of seasonal fires around the world, shifting (diminishing) water aquifers, global temperature changes, and global flow patterns of pollutants ranging from dust and salt spray to coal plant emissions (sulfur aerosols) and smoke from rainforest clearing.  None of this science was new to me, but the computerized images were stunningly beautiful, despite the terrifying story they were telling.  (See Hilde’s post on the “State of the Planet.”)

The Hyperwall at the U.S. Center in Doha
Another long bus ride back to the hotel, twelve hours after I left this morning.  And then..time to consider what to write in a blog post for the day.

[2] Co-published by the Dag Jammerskjöld Foundation and the What Next Forum, September 2012, available at: .

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

“China is run by scientists, and the United States is run by lawyers”

Most of China’s leadership comes from a science or engineering background, and for that reason, Dale Wen believes they are more willing to listen to the technical experts on climate change.  Ms. Wen, herself from China, believes this a crucial different between China and the U.S., where the leaders are more likely to have trained in law than science.  Ms. Wen joined the panel of the Third World Network to talk a bit more about China’s position on climate change.
Ms. Wen’s work has been to document the progress China has made in terms of sustainability and to correct some of the misinformation.  By almost any measure, China as devoted more resources into renewable energy than the United States, three times that of the United States when measured in terms of GDP. Yet, China’s support for renewables has also been challenged under the World Trade Organization rules.
China has also suffered from severe droughts and floods, and food security is a major issue.  They are spending 4 trillion yen on rural waterworks and irrigation. They understand that they have to do even more, but they feel undermined by the international organizations. Perhaps most importantly, they do not see the United States taking any leadership role. Ms. Wen says the average Chinese citizen is beginning to think that “China should do what the West does, not what the West says.”
Ms. Wen has written a chapter in the “What Next (vol. 3): Climate Development and Equity” which can be found at Her chapter is entitled “China and Climate Change – Spin, Facts and Realpolitik.” Here she outlines many of the achievements of China, including the following: China set up a comprehensive National Climate Action Program in 2007; China’s vehicle fuel efficiency standards are higher than the United States; and, China’s investment in clean energy nearly doubles the United states at $34.6 billion. 

Ambition and Equity

“Ambition” and “equity” were the two key concepts mentioned most often in a side event sponsored by the Third World Network.  
Meena Raman from Malaysia began by outlining the issues that face us at this particular junction. She noted that the science is clear that massive emissions reductions are necessary now, and that a legally binding treaty is necessary where the amount of emissions deduction is consistent with the science.  We are at a crossroads where we are leaving the two tracks, the Ad Hoc Working Group under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and the Ad Hoc Working Group for Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) under the Bali Action Plan (BAP), and moving towards the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) which should be in place by 2020.
In the AWG-KP track, the Annex 1 Parties (developed countries and economies in transition) are negotiating a second commitment period of 5 or 8 years and the emission reduction targets. The first commitment period expires at the end of December 2012. The United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and withdrew years ago. This past year, Canada dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol, and Japan, Russia and New Zealand have refused to participate in a second commitment period. Australia is undecided, leaving only the European Union. The EU has proposed committing to 20% cut by 2020 compared to 1990, a goal which it has essentially already achieved.  In Ms. Raman’s view, there is nothing ambitious on the table, pointing out that “nobody leaves the Kyoto Protocol to do more.”  Her fear is that we will lose a decade, making it all the more difficult to meet emission reduction targets in the future. 
The Bali Action Plan also called for “comparable efforts,” which the U.S. delegation resists.  At this point, the developing countries feel that they are being expected to take on too much of the burden.  Ms. Raman notes that one out of two of the extreme weather events of recent years have affected developing nations, and yet the developing nations have not been responsible for the historical emissions.