Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the UN climate chief abandoning a sinking ship?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

The controversial former UN ambassador John Bolton famously said "If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Now Yvo de Boer, the UN's executive secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, is resigning, saying in a statement that “I have always maintained that while governments provide the necessary policy framework, the real solutions must come from business."

An interesting comment from a lifelong bureaucrat.

The Copenhagen round in December has been described as everything from a "debacle" (UK Guardian) to "chaotic" (NY Times). But is this a failure of the UN, or of Mr. DeBoer's management of the talks? The world's major emitter nations came to the table prepared to commit to substantial reductions, there was near unanimous acknowledgment that we need to set a 450 ppm target to avoid massive global ecological disaster and social injustice, and hundreds of NGOs had engaged in protracted public awareness/education campaigns to create populist enthusiasm for climate action. Businesses have also been preparing to prove de Boer right - by working hard on solutions to address the almost certain need to conform to a new world order with low carbon economic policies.

As de Boer himself said, "We were about an inch away from a formal was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen. So that was a pity."

Just two months later, we have major firms (including BP and Caterpillar) bailing out of the US Climate Action Partnership, a stalled climate bill, sinking public belief in climate change, and the US chamber of commerce again attacking the EPA. A pity indeed.

What was needed in Copenhagen was strong and competent leadership, and a pragmatic and realistic acknowledgment that a half dozen super powers were really the ones in a position to get a deal done...or to block it. Bolton understood this, as does President Obama, who flew in on the last day and brokered a last minute accord among the largest emitters.

I for one believe the the UN can play an important role in facilitating coordinated global policy on this borderless issue. The Montreal Protocol, which halted ozone depletion, is a shining example of what is possible. And the UN- created CDM mechanism is a potentially powerful tool to fight climate change while improving livelihoods through financing projects such as cookstoves, forestry, and innovative energy retrofits.

We have another chance at the next meetings in Cancun later this year, although the momentum and build up to Copenhagen will not be replicated. My advice for the next UN climate chief? Most of the work for Copenhagen should have been done on a bilateral or multilateral basis before the meeting opened, whether that is politically popular or not -- the twelve day mosh pit approach does not work. And it is time to dismiss Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, the UN's climate science arm. Under Pachauri's leadership, the IPCC's credibility, and therefore the credibility of the science underlying climate change has become tarnished.

Tough decisions? Perhaps. But the issue is too important not to take decisive action. As the saying goes; "When the going gets tough, the tough get going"...while the not so tough simply go. So Mr. de Boer, thank you for your service. But no one said your job would be easy. On an issue this big, we need someone at the helm who can make this work, or at least is willing to go down with the ship.

Photo adapted from / CC BY-SA 2.0 and / CC BY-SA 2.0 under a CC license. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is the nuclear option really the answer to climate change?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

In President Obama's recent state of the union speech, he called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." While he specifically called out what he referred to as clean energy, the speech made no mention of renewables, and gave only token acknowledgment to the idea of conservation. Is the nuclear option really our best option?

The issue of expanding nuclear power is a divisive one, even within the environmental movement. Greenpeace responded to the President's speech by saying:

"Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean. There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's "clean." For years, nuclear plants have been leaking radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites across the nation."

To prove their point, they highlighted a recent New York Times article covering the rapidly rising levels of radioactive tritium in the groundwater surrounding Vermont’s sole nuclear power plant. This has raised doubts in the minds of many former supporters of the plant.

On the other side of the issue, one of the co-founder of Greenpeace - Patrick Moore - is now co-chairman (along with former Bush-era EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman) of the Nuclear Energy Institute's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

As Moore told Wired Magazine:

"We failed to distinguish between the beneficial uses of the technology and the evil uses of the technology...Greenpeace is against fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power. Those three technologies produce over 99 percent of world energy. What kind of a path to a sustainable future is that? We're bringing people at the municipal and state levels together to help convince the American public that nuclear energy is a key technology for the future."

He also told another interviewer:

"Even though nuclear does create waste, that waste is very successfully contained – it is not leaking out, it is not harming anybody. On the other hand, emissions from fossil fuel combustion for energy and transportation are harming people."

A few other environmental champions have also take this positon.

But while Mr. Moore declares success, is he wrong to ignore Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the 100,000 gallon radioactive coolant leak at TVAs Sequyah plant, or the smaller incidents in Japan, France and the former Soviet Union? Or are the rest of us burying our head in the sand about the realistic options for reducing fossil fuel consumption?

My own views are best captured by a recent episode of The Simpson's, which describes nuclear power as:

"The cleanest energy there is, except once in a while, but then lookout."

That pretty much says it all.

There's been amazing progress in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable technologies, and conservation and forest preservation have tremendous potential. But apparently the lure of energy that is clean and "too cheap to meter" continues to divert attention from these ideas. Or perhaps the President is offering his opponents a uranium-enriched olive branch in order to get a climate bill passed. But with the track record and unanswered questions about storage of nuclear waste, I don't think that "mostly safe and clean" is good enough. Let's at least try to find and fund some better ideas.