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Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

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Wondering Why the World is Dithering on Global Warming? Check Out This Video with Bill Rees


“We have the science to deal with the global warming problem and we’ve had it for some time. So the question is: what is it about the nature of our species that we are intelligent enough to know we have a problem but we are not capable of organizing socially in order to solve this problem?” – William Rees, the father of the Ecological Footprint.

Rees,  an ecologist and professor at the University of British Columbia,  has been anointed with “rock star status” by Adbusters for coming up with the concept of the Ecological Footprint. His presentation to journalists from around the world at the GreenAccord conference created a buzz. Rees explains the Ecological Footprint and why the idea that there are no limits to growth is a fallacy. It’s thought-provoking stuff and certainly timely, given news of political gridlock at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen this week.

My friend Alex Savulescu videotaped, edited and uploaded the video to the web. Thanks Alex!

Glacial Flooding: Another Threat of Global Warming

For years, I had heard about how glacier melting caused by global warming was imperiling the world’s fresh water supplies, the vast majority of which come from mountains. But I hadn’t thought about the flooding threat the rapid melting poses to mountain communities until I listened to presentations by mountain geographer Alton Byers and Nepalese mountaineers Apa Sherpa and Dawa Steven Sherpa last week in Italy.

A quick search of the Internet, provides plenty more detail on this phenomenon, known as a glacial lake outburst. Here in the United States, lakes formed by melting glaciers on Mount Rainier in Washington State have burst their banks, causing flooding several times in the last quarter century. Alaska and Wyoming, among other places, have also seen flooding caused by the failure of glacial lakes. But rural mountain communities in the Himalayas are among the most endangered in the world. The United Nations Environment Program has an inventory of these potentially dangerous water bodies in the Himalayan countries of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and parts of India and China.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Apa Sherpa lost his farm in the sudden August 1985 outburst from the Dig Tsho glacial lake in Nepal that destroyed fourteen bridges and caused $1.5 million in damage to a nearly finished hydropower plant. Since then, experts have seen a rising number of similar flooding disasters.

The UN estimates that tens of thousands of lives are at risk in the Himalayas alone as rising temperatures accelerate the melting. It is one of several threats the rapid retreat of glaciers is causing in these and other mountainous countries from Peru to Switzerland. Besides flooding, these countries area already reporting declines in fresh water supplies used for drinking and irrigating crops. Experts estimate that a billion people around the world live in river basins fed by glaciers and melted snow. And, hydroelectric power is also expected to decline sharply as the melting continues in coming decades.

Efforts to solve the problem are also underway. In Bhutan, the government received help earlier this year from international groups to drain Thorthormi Tsho lake before it could flood the valley below it. The operation has been held up as an example of how glacial countries might adapt to climate change.

Peru, which has dealt with the problem for decades, has developed ways to drain these lakes and harness hydroelectric power from the melt water, Byers says. He is now working with Peruvian officials to bring the knowhow to Nepal, where about two dozen glacial lakes are considered critically dangerous and more will likely form as the world’s glaciers disappear by or before the end of the century.

“We don’t want to move. We want to stay and solve this problem,” Dawa Steven Sherpa told journalists at GreenAccord last week. He recalled hearing his grandfather talk about how it was once possible to cross a  glacial mountain pass connecting Nepal to Tibet on the other side of Mount Everest. Today, that snow and ice are gone and way impassable. Long established climbing routes have also disappeared elsewhere in the region, exposing rock and rubble and making climbing more treacherous, he said.

To draw attention to global warming ahead of next week’s international climate talks in Copenhagen, Nepal’s Cabinet is meeting this week at the Mount Everest base camp, 17,192 feet (5,240 meters) above sea level. Dawa and Apa Sherpa, meanwhile, are heading to Copenhagen, where they plan to join other activists for a Dec. 11 march.

“This is not a problem we can run away from,” according to Dawa Sherpa. “This is a problem we are going to have to face head on and solve.”

After 36 Years, Sherpas Bring Daring Mt. Everest Helicopter Rescue Full Circle

Italia1 at base camp. Photo courtesy of Guido Landucci.

As glaciers melt – presumably as a result of global warming – mountaineers are stumbling upon the castoffs from long-ago climbing expeditions. All kinds of mementos – from empty cans of beans to dead bodies – are being released from icy tombs as the snow recedes.

One such discovery led to an unexpected meeting last week in Viterbo, Italy between mountaineers from Nepal and the son of an Italian Air Force captain, who piloted an ill-fated rescue mission 36 years ago.

Lifelong Viterbo resident Guido Landucci had wondered for years what had become of his father’s helicopter after it crashed on Mount Everest in 1973. He was a boy of 12 at the time and grew up hearing about the daring mission to rescue stranded climbers on their way to the top of the world’s highest peak. His father made it out alive. And no one was killed in the accident but the aircraft was left behind.

Apa Sherpa

It lay hidden under the snow until earlier this year, when Apa Sherpa, a legendary Nepalese guide, happened upon the wreckage. EIAA Italia1, the call sign of the Italian Air Force craft was clearly visible on the tail that jutted out of an expanse of whiteness. Somebody snapped a photo, which found its way into a presentation Apa gave to journalists at the annual GreenAccord environmental conference Nov. 27 in Viterbo, a city about 60 miles north of Rome.

He and his friend and fellow environmental activist Dawa Steven Sherpa had come to Italy on their way to climate talks next week in Copenhagen, where they will join in street marches aimed at pressuring world leaders for an international accord to combat global warming.

Nepal is one of those places where climate change is already showing itself with dramatic effect. As the glaciers retreat, the region’s fresh water supply is expected to decline, which could lead to severe water shortages. An even more immediate worry are unstable glacial lakes that form in valleys where the melt water accumulates.  Apa Sherpa, who has scaled Mount Everest 19 times, a world record, lost his home and nearly his life when one of these glacial lakes burst its banks and flooded the countryside below. Dozens of similar lakes threaten communities in Nepal, Peru and other high-mountain countries.

For the two climate activists, the photo of the downed helicopter merely illustrated expedition detritus surfacing as the snow goes.  What they didn’t know was that Landucci’s wife was in the audience and brought the news home to her husband that evening. The next day, Guido turned up at the conference and vowed to oversee retrieval of the helicopter in what will be a cleanup effort on a grand scale; The craft is considered the biggest piece of human waste ever left behind on the famous mountain.

Landucci, a financial adviser who has never been to Mount Everest, considers Apa Sherpa’s visit to his hometown a poetic turn of events and says he will find a way to retrieve the copter in the name of his father, Captain Paolo Landucci, who passed away in 2004. When I spoke with him the day after he made his promise, he planned to seek help from the Italian Air Force and mountaineering clubs and was looking forward to his first trip to Nepal.

“This is not the end of this story,” he says. “The story just beings again in another direction.”

Italian Pasta – The Next Victim of Climate Change?

Hello! My apologies for having slacked of blogger duties for the last couple of days. I had a deadline to meet and a plane to catch, but am back on the ground now, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic.  So if you are looking for the daily news roundup of DC sustainability news, my apologies again! Please come back next Tuesday, when I will return to the District and the local beat.

For the rest of this week, I will be reporting from the GreenAccord environmental journalism conference in Italy. This gathering of reporters, writers and editors from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States is organization each fall by an Italian nonprofit group. This year’s subtitle is Climate is Changing, stories, facts and people. Later on, we will be hearing from a farmer from Uganda, a Mongolian herdsman and other local people facing dramatic changes to their lives and lifestyles as a result of global warming.  But today, the meeting kicked off with a sobering assessment from a couple of policy wonks who stressed the need for the world to take rapid measures to reduce carbon emissions and stave off the worst impacts of global warming.

Leena Srivastava, the executive director of The Energy and Resources Institute, who helped preparing the 2007 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, opened the conference up with a speech the international climate politics. While everyone was talking about the December Copenhagen climate negotiations, she looked beyond the summit, saying what happens with pending US climate legislation could spark a wider international mobilzation in the coming months if Copenhagen fails to yeild results. Still, the forecast was pretty bleak.

Next, Janet Larsen, from our very on DC-based Earth Policy Institute, launched into her presentation by reminding everyone that rising temperatures caused by climate change may completely decimate Italy’s durem wheat crop used to make the country’s famous pasta. Climate change is also expected to take a heavy toll on corn, potato and a wide varety of other crops. But since we’re all particularly enjoying the wonderful Italian food at the conference, the impending loss of pasta was most  solemly received. After grabbing our attention, Larsen launched into a brief description of her colleague Lester Brown’s latest in the series of Plan B books that offer solutions to  our mounting climate woes.

Well, gotta go! It is lunchtime here and I don’t want to miss out on the pasta while its still around. But I will write up a more detailed report later today.

Until then, Ciao bellos!