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New Google Tool Helps Monitor World’s Forests

Map of Mexico created with Google Earth Engine, by scientist Matthew Hansen and CONAFOR. Google says this is the finest-scale forest cover map produced of Mexico to date.

This week in Cancun, in a jungle-themed conference room with green lighting and an audio track of rain forest sounds, Google launched a new technology platform designed to help scientists — and ultimately developing countries — monitor deforestation. Google Earth Engine combines LandSat satellite imagery from the last 25 years (much of which was not previously available online) with analytical tools provided by scientists, which will allow users to make fine-scale maps.

Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute at Stanford is one of Google’s partners in the project. His lab provided some of the algorithms built into the Earth Engine that will allow users to analyze the satellite data online.

“There have been two major bottlenecks in helping people to map and keep track of deforestation and degradation: getting access to the satellite data and making it user-friendly,” said Asner. Continue reading

A Call for Better Climate Awareness

Marjorie Sun’s story on climate education efforts by science museums is particularly timely, since the legislative landscape in Washington is most likely to become more hostile to climate science, when Congress turns over next month (see John Broder’s post for the New York Times, for more on the Senate’s highest-profile climate contrarian).

Part of the "Feeling the Heat" exhibit at Birch Aquarium, near San Diego. (Photo: Birch Aquarium)

One of the educators interviewed in her radio feature, Tom Bowman, was among the signatories of a letter published in the journal Science shortly after the story first aired on KQED’s Quest. Bowman’s firm helps develop climate exhibits, including those at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

The letter declared that “Because the potential consequences of climate change are so high, the science community has an obligation to help people, organizations, and governments make informed decisions.”

The missive went on to call for a major initiative among scientists to improve public understanding of climate issues:

“The initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception.” Continue reading

Rich and Poor Collide in Cancun

Contrasts and bus connections in Cancun provide a metaphor for the climate talks going on there.

COP16 attendees waiting in line for the UN bus (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

For a conference aimed at lowering the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, COP16 sure looks like it has big carbon footprint.  Just the air travel alone for the thousands of people coming to Cancun from literally all over the world is a huge source of emissions.  But once you get here, the excess emissions continue.  Cancun’s hotel zone is one long line of huge beachfront resorts boasting luxury accommodations, all-you-can-eat buffets, and — in the case of my hotel — giant jacuzzi tubs in every bedroom, despite the sign on the bathroom sink suggesting that guests remember to conserve water.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there isn’t really time for taking baths in enormous tubs, because attendees must spend so much time on the road.  Special UN buses are shuttling people back and forth between the Hotel Zone and the negotiations constantly, commutes made more arduous and carbon-intensive by the added miles and long circuitous routes the buses have to make due to security.  Most of the hotels are located north of the negotiations, but security to attend them is located to the south. Therefore, attendees must first travel south, then north (up the same road) to get into the conference.   A common conversation on the buses is wistfully recalling how wonderful it was at COP15 last year, when attendees could simply take public transit (or walk through the streets of Copenhagen) to reach the talks.

At least the long intervals spent standing in line at bus stops provide a chance to warm up in the hot sun and recover from the Arctic conditions inside the conference centers.  Despite the fact that attendees were encouraged to “dress down” this year: traditional Mexican shirts for men and cotton dresses for women, so that the venues could save emissions with less air conditioning, many of us are wearing jackets and sweaters inside the venues.

One journalist described this year’s conference to me as “an island within an island.”  Military blockades have closed roads at various points, diverting local traffic.  Because of the geography, it would be very easy for people to come to COP16 and never actually see the town of Cancun, which, is a far cry from the Hotel Zone.  There’s a sharp divide between rich and poor here, with the opulence of these resorts just a few miles from abject poverty — which may be a fitting metaphor for the climate talks themselves.

Rich nations and poor ones are, in many ways, lined up on opposite sides of a fence as they sort out how to level the field.  Last year, as part of the Copenhagen Accord, a coalition of developed nations, including the United States, agreed to provide funding to help developing nations deal with climate change: $30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020. A major issue at this conference is working out how to allocate this money. While much of that money has been pledged, much of it has yet to materialize.

While the United States is moving forward with building and solidifying the Copenhagen Accord, according to chief negotiator Johnathan Pershing, some people (and nations) are concerned that this path will not be enough to stop the Earth from warming to dangerous levels. Even UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who heads the UN climate effort, said on Monday that if all the emissions-reduction promises made in the Copenhagen Accord were delivered, the world would be on track for warming more than the two degrees Celsius that the accord was designed to meet.

On Tuesday night I attended a community prayer vigil in downtown Cancun.  There were about 200 local people from different denominations, including Pentecostals and Catholics, gathered to sing songs and say prayers for the Earth.  Victor Menotti, head of the California-based International Forum on Globalization described the Copenhagen Accord as a path to “collective suicide.”

“The Copenhagen Accord doesn’t get us what we need in terms of emissions reductions, financing, and technology transfer,” he said. “All it is, is a collection of voluntary pledges that don’t add up.”

California Floats Plan B in Cancun

Photo: Gretchen Weber

After the hype and subsequent disappointment surrounding last year’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen, which failed to produce binding global agreement on emissions reductions, the expectations for this year’s talks, which open in Cancun, Mexico today, are much more modest.

“We’re not going to get a global, legally binding deal at Cancun,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit at UC Davis earlier this month. “We’ve got to make it a staging post toward that deal.”

Rather than focusing on a comprehensive binding agreement, negotiators will likely focus on technical steps that could pave the way for a final deal at next year’s talks in South Africa, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. Those might include financing for developing nations to deal with climate change; setting standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying nations’ greenhouse gas emissions; and tackling emissions from deforestation.

Meanwhile, California is moving ahead with its plans to organize a network of sub-national cooperation, called the R20, which Governor Schwarzenegger announced in Copenhagen last year and officially launched at his summit in Davis two weeks ago.

“As a binding international agreement remains elusive, we know that there’s a lot of work that can be done at the sub-national level,” said Cal-EPA Secretary Linda Adams, who will be in Cancun promoting R20.  “In fact the UN itself says that up to 80% of all mitigation that will be required to keep the Earth’s temps stable will be done at the sub-national level.”

That work will primarily focus on organizing regional and local governments around to world to work together on clean energy projects, said Terry Tamminen, the former Cal-EPA chief who is currently leading R20 efforts.

“Basically our main purpose [at Cancun] is simply to say to them ‘Look, you’re not the only ones in this game, and we know you’re all frustrated because you haven’t been able to reach a successor agreement to Kyoto, but we at the subnational level are here to help. We’re going to be this bottom-up, even as you continue to try to get the top-down agreement and we’ll be waiting for you, whenever you show up,’” said Tamminen.

Over the last year, R20 has grown to include 69 governments and organizations, and Tamminen said he expects 100 members by the end of the year.  He said he’ll spend the next few months recruiting members, organizing structurally as an organization, lining up financing, and identifying projects that are “low-hanging fruit,” such as installing efficient street lighting, replacing old boilers with more efficient ones, and piloting waste-to-energy programs.

Tamminen said that Gov. Schwarzenegger plans to “devote a lot of his time” to R20 when he leaves office in January. 

“Next year in South Africa when the world meets, and the UN is once again looking for a global deal, you can imagine him taking center stage and saying, “Well, we’ve got a deal for you!” said Tamminen.

Gretchen Weber will remain in Cancun for the next two weeks, following the UN climate talks as a fellow with the Earth Journalism Network, a project of Internews. You can check back here, at the Climate Watch blog for dispatches, and follow her on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/gxweber.

Taking Climate Education to the Streets

Science museums, aquariums and other “informal educators” walk a tightrope when it comes to climate change.

By Marjorie Sun

The California Academy of Sciences and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have a big advantage that some educational institutions in other parts of the country don’t: most of their visitors — who tend to be Californians — believe that climate change is real. That means their global warming exhibits can focus on solutions, for example, rather than laying out the basics of atmospheric science.

Californians’ concern about climate change has translated into political support for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. According to survey results released in July by the Public Policy Institute of California, two-thirds of Californians strongly back the pioneering state law known as AB 32. The law requires a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. And the recent defeat of Proposition 23 by 22 percentage points would appear to affirm that support.

Californians appear to buck some national trends on climate change issues. A declining number of Americans say there is solid evidence that the world is warming. The number dropped from 79% in 2006, when AB 32 was passed, to 59% this year, according to a survey just released by the Pew Research Center.  The number who think scientists agree that the world is warming due to human activity fell from 59% to 44% over the same period. Even more telling, perhaps, is that the ratio of “yes” to “no” answers to the latter question for Republicans (30:58) is almost the mirror image of that for Democrats (59:32).

New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer details in a recent, in-depth article that billionaires David and Charles Koch, titans of the oil industry, have been spending millions of dollars waging a covert disinformation campaign to thwart climate change legislation in the United States.

Aboard the Bio-Bus

A local organization has launched a mobile counter-offensive. The Alliance for Climate Education, a non-profit based in Oakland, has created a hip, multi-media presentation spiced with animation and rock music to reach teens. Think An Inconvenient Truth goes MTV. The alliance has shown it to more than 420,000 high schoolers across the nation in the past year. The presentation teaches teens the basics about climate change and urges them to “do one thing” to fight it.

Alliance staffers also have tricked out an old school bus with clean tech, driving it to schools and museums to showcase renewable technology. The blue bio-bus runs on used cooking oil collected from restaurants. Solar panels on the bus charge cell phones and computers on board.

Unmasking the Cow

The model cow in the Monterey Bay Aquarium climate change exhibit originally appeared with a gas mask, which has since been removed. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Meanwhile, keeping the climate change exhibits up-to-date scientifically is a concern for the museums. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, outfitting a life-size model cow with a gas mask was prompted in part by a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO study said that industrial production of livestock in general, including cattle, pigs, and poultry, accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But another FAO study released in April — about the same time the climate change exhibit opened — examined the GHG emissions for the dairy industry alone, not beef production. It concluded that dairy production contributes just four percent of emissions. The study (PDF download), along with howls of protests from the local dairy industry, helped convince the aquarium to unmask the Holstein.

One last tidbit about interactive exhibits: One of the most popular — common to the Academy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium — is surprisingly low-tech. Thousands of visitors write on comment cards about what they can do to fight climate change and hang them on display boards there. One of them, in a child’s handwriting, read “Reduce, reuse, recycle and homework is bad for the environment.”

Hear Marjorie’s companion radio feature on KQED’s Quest radio program, Monday morning. A version of this post also appears on the Quest blog.

Apocalypse Not: Study Says Cool Down the Climate Message

Image from an Envrionmental Defense Fund TV campaign

Remember that TV ad that represented climate change as an oncoming train? Polar bears falling from the sky and spattering on the sidewalk? If a new study from sociologists at UC Berkeley is any indication, they probably backfired.

Sociology Professor Rob Willer says more than two years of testing with college students and subjects recruited over the Internet reveal that if projections of severe climate impacts clash with a person’s fundamental view of a safe and stable world, that person is less likely to act on it.

“When you underscore potential ways out of the problem,” says Willer, “Then you can communicate the facts of climate change without threatening people so much that they deny the problem.

Willer says that repeatedly exposing subjects to “negative” messages about climate change affected more than their personal motivation to address it; their belief in the science behind the message was actually eroded. And he says that people in the study tended to be put off by “scary” messages, regardless of their politics.

As part of the negative messaging, Willer showed subjects the “train” spot produced by the Environmental Defense Fund. Willer says it was not a motivator in his study, even though it ends with the message “There’s still time.”

The study’s conclusions came as no surprise to “messaging” experts at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference, wrapping up today in Sacramento.

Anne Dougherty, Manager of Social & Behavioral Research at Oakland-based Opinion Dynamics Corporation, says that motivational messaging in general should steer clear of tones that are bleak, catastrophic, punitive or scary. “There is this tendency to disassociate with messaging when the messaging is bleak,” said Dougherty. “People, in order to be inspired to take action, need to feel a bit optimistic about what they’re going to be doing.”

Dougherty’s company has been involved in developing energy conservation campaigns in California, such as “Flex Your Power” and the upcoming “Engage 360” campaign, sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Willer says his study focused on personal actions, not what the government should do about global warming. His work will appear in the journal Psychological Science early next year.

Meanwhile, what motivates you? What doesn’t?

Regions Make Their Own Climate Stand

In the absence of an international agreement, states and provinces commit to work together to fight climate change.

Gov. Schwarzenegger making closing remarks at the Governors' Global Climate Summit (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s third and final Governors’ Global Climate Summit wrapped up Tuesday with the launch of a new international coalition aimed at developing projects that cut carbon emissions around the globe. R20, or “Regions of Climate Action” is the culmination of Governor Schwarzenegger’s efforts to spur “subnational” action to address climate change.

“We can’t afford to wait for national and international movement,” he said in a press release announcing R20. “Action is needed now.” Continue reading

What the Gov’s Global Climate Summit and “The Goonies” Have in Common

When the parents aren’t taking action, sometimes the kids need to step in and solve the problem in whatever ways they can piece together.

"GGCS 3" is Governor Schwarzenegger's third climate summit. (Photo: Governor's Office)

I’m at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Davis this week, where representatives from more than 80 regional and local governments have come together for two days to try to figure out ways to reduce emissions and put the brakes on climate change.  The idea is that since last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen failed to produce a binding international agreement, and the US Congress can’t get it together to agree on any sort of energy and/or climate bill, cities and states and provinces can’t stand by and do nothing while the international community haggles and CO2 levels continue to creep higher. Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

Geoengineering: Use it or Lose it?

Just as delegates from 193 nations agreed to a voluntary moratorium on geoengineering research last week at the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, the US House Science and Technology Committee issued a report outlining how federal geoengineering research could be pursued in the United States. The international agreement to ban the research does not apply to the US, which has not ratified the CBD. (More from The Washington Post and Climate Central.) Continue reading

The Next Battle Front for AB 32

California’s Proposition 23 has failed at the polls, so now either the “second Industrial Revolution” may proceed or it’s the end of free enterprise as we know it, or we simply move on to the next front in the assault on California’s emerging carbon regulations.

(Photo: Craig Miller)

The $40 million fight over Prop 23 presented two opposing themes: (a) AB 32 will wreck the economy, or (b) AB 32 will save the economy. Both visions for California’s climate law were hyperbolic. It would be fascinating to be able to tap into some parallel universe where it did pass, just to see what would really happen. More than likely some middle ground would prevail, as it will now, in this Universe. Continue reading