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Seize the Moment

Artists, authors, and scientists write letters to future generations predicting the outcome of the Paris climate talks

World leaders from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris during the first two weeks of December for the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference. Will the governments of the world finally pass a binding global treaty aimed at reducing the most dangerous impacts of global warming… or will they fail in this task?

Illustration of COP21Illustration by Don Button “The first thing to say is, sorry,” writes Bill McKibben.

Letters to the Future, a national project involving more than 40 alternative weeklies across the United States, set out to find authors, artists, scientists and others willing to get creative and draft letters to future generations of their own families, predicting the success or failure of the Paris talks — and what came after.

Some participants were optimistic about what is to come — some not so much. Here are some of their visions of the future.

Seize the Moment

By Bill McKibben

Dear Descendants, The first thing to say is, sorry. We were the last generation to know the world before full-on climate change made it a treacherous place. That we didn’t get sooner to work slowing it down is our great shame, and you live with the unavoidable consequences.

Photo of Bill McKibben Photo by Chris Riedinger "The real changes flowed in the months and years past Paris," writes Bill

That said, I hope that we made at least some difference. There were many milestones in the fight — Rio, Kyoto, the debacle at Copenhagen. By the time the great Paris climate conference of 2015 rolled around, many of us were inclined to cynicism. 

And our cynicism was well-taken. The delegates to that convention, representing governments that were still unwilling to take more than baby steps, didn’t really grasp the nettle. They looked for easy, around-the-edges fixes, ones that wouldn’t unduly alarm their patrons in the fossil fuel industry.

But so many others seized the moment that Paris offered to do the truly important thing: Organize. There were meetings and marches, disruptions and disobedience. And we came out of it more committed than ever to taking on the real power that be.

The real changes flowed in …more

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Campaigners Launch Legal Fight to Stop Japan’s Whale Hunt

As Japan appears ready to resume hunting in the Antarctic, environmental group to take whaling company to court in Australia

Environmental campaigners are launching a last-ditch legal attempt to prevent Japan from slaughtering whales in the Antarctic this winter, after Tokyo indicated it would ignore a ban on its “scientific” expeditions.

Photo of Japan Factory Ship Nisshin Maru Whaling Mother and CalfPhoto by Australian Customs and Border Protection Service A whale and calf being loaded onto the Nishin Maru, a Japanese whaling ship .

The Australian branch of Humane Society International (HSI) will on Wednesday ask the federal court in Sydney to find Kyodo Senpaku, the Japanese company that organizes the hunts, in contempt of a 2008 ruling that banned the whaling fleet from hunting in an area of the Southern Ocean that Australia recognizes as a whale sanctuary.

Japan, however, does not recognise the sanctuary and has continued to hunt in the area over the past several years, although it has not killed a single whale there since the international court of justice (ICJ) rejected Japanese claims in March last year that “lethal sampling” was necessary to conduct scientific research into whale populations.

Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, Japan had permission to kill a certain number of whales every year for what it called scientific research, with the meat sold legally on the open market.

After initially agreeing to comply with last year’s landmark ICJ judgment in the Hague, Japan appears poised to defy the court and resume the hunts early next year.

HSI is launching its challenge to Kyodo Senpaku seven years after the federal court found Japan in breach of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and instructed it to halt whaling in the area.

The group says Japan has killed “tens, if not hundreds” of whales in the sanctuary since the injunction. “Whales are protected under Australian law, and we want to see that law upheld,” said Jess Harwood, HSI Australia’s biodiversity program officer.

“If the ruling goes our way it will be an important statement — that Japan is in contempt of court by continuing to kill whales.”

In addition to a ban, the group will ask the court to impose a “substantial” fine on the whalers.

In a recent note submitted to the UN, Japan gave …more

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Paris Climate March Will Go On, Say Activists

Civil society rejects French government’s restrictions on public demonstrations during COP21

It is often said that the twentieth century began, not in 1900, but in 1914 when the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand IV threw us into World War I.  Before the Friday attacks in Paris, I was saying — perhaps a bit glibly — that the climate conference in Paris would mark the real beginning of the twenty-first century. At this point, I'm not even sure I want to be right. For if this indeed our fate, it will not likely be an easy one. 

Climate protestors in San FranciscoPhoto by Peg HunterClimate activists' in San Francisco demonstration against Bank of the West, a subsidiary of the French bank BNP Paribas which is a top financier of the coal industry and also one of the corporate sponsors of the United Nations climate summit in Paris.

Exhibit A is France’s decision to suspend many of the civil society events that are planned to take place outside the conference hall. 

And the recent decision — just taken today by the Coalition Climat 21 — to respectfully demur. The demonstrations, the coalition says, will go on.  

Yesterday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that due to new security measures following Friday’s coordinated terrorist attacks around Paris that killed 129 people, the nation would limit the upcoming United Nations climate summit to only the core negotiations, and ban any marches, rallies, concerts or other events related to the twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP 21).

"A series of demonstrations planned will not take place and it will be reduced to the negotiations ... a lot of concerts and festivities will be canceled," Valls told a French radio station, according to a Reuters report.

According to UN estimates about 60,000 people, including envoys, journalists and civil society members, will descend on the embattled French capital for the conference that is slated to begin in two weeks.

But by Tuesday morning (Monday afternoon in the US) the Coalition Climat 21, an umberella group that has been organizing a major climate march on November 29 as well as several other demonstrations, announced that all the events it had planned would go on as usual. Other demonstrations include a “People’s Summit” on 5 and 6 December and civil disobedience action on the last day of the talks.

From the Coalition’s press …more

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Paris: The End of the Beginning

Will Paris be a success or a failure? It will be both. The real question is whether it opens the way to a new future of justice and ambition

As I write this, the United Nations climate conference is only weeks away. And now, of course, it will take place in an atmosphere of mourning, and crisis, and war. Beyond this change of tone, what difference will the 11/13 attacks make on the outcome of the negotiations? It is impossible to say, though it’s not too much to hope for heightened clarity, and seriousness, and resolve. This is a time to attend to the future. On this, at least, we should be able to agree.

The essay below was finished before the attacks. I’ve changed only these opening words, which already said that the stakes were high. That has not changed. Nor has my overall claim, that while the negotiations are not going well, they’re not going badly either, and that in any case they must be judged in realist terms.


photo of demonstrators in colorful costumesPhoto by Shubert CienciaCOP 20 in Lima was a breakthrough meeting in several ways, not least because the G-77+China bloc of developing countries finally began to negotiate well.

There’s a way forward for the negotiations, though you wouldn’t know it from some of the commentary, which can be amazingly glib. My favorite example, a perfect snapshot of post-Copenhagen, pre-Paris despair, is food guru turned climate expert Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times last year: “The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco. That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.”

In fairness, Bittman was writing about COP 20 in Lima, which took place a long year ago. But it was clear even before Lima that this sort of cynicism was counterproductive. The old stories of developed vs. developing, polluters vs. people, duplicitous vs. heroic — true though they were — were simply not true enough. By Lima, the US and China were working together to strike a deal that would hold on both sides …more

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Combating Blast Fishing in Malaysia

Protecting healthy reefs and restoring damaged ones in the Coral Triangle

We are freediving near a gorgeous coral reef along the coast of Kalapuan Island, a small Malaysian island few have ever heard of. Located in the Coral Triangle, which is the global center of marine biodiversity, one would expect to find countless types of corals, fish, and other marine life here. A few meters below the surface, however, we find a stark contrast — an incredibly colorful and vibrant seascape right next to a scene of complete underwater devastation.

Photo of Reef in BorneoPhoto by Christian HollandShark Stewards and TRACC are working to establish a locally managed marine protected area encompassing the Kalapuan reef.

Dr. Steve Oakley, president of the nonprofit Tropical Research and Conservation Centre, surfaces in his yellow football jersey gripping a handful of living but broken coral fragments.

“We will keep these in the fish box and we will bring them back and plant them,” he says, as he places the small branching corals into a box floating at the surface.

“See this sheared rock?” Oakley asks as he hands me a large chunk of white coral. Along the top edge, the cups from the coral polyps indicate the edge of the once-living coral. “This kind of damage only comes from blasting.”

Oakley is referring to the practice of blast fishing, whereby fishermen toss explosives into the water, often a bottle of fertilizer and kerosene with a lit fuse. The resulting blast produces a large crater in the reef, and kills or stuns fish within a 15 to 25 meter radius. The fish float to the surface, where they are easily collected for market. In areas that have been heavily blasted, the practice leaves behind a wasteland of flattened coral rubble that can take decades or even centuries to recover. It is an illegal but rampant form of fishing here in the Coral Triangle, where locals often live hand-to-mouth and rely on the sea to survive.

I’m here with Shark Stewards, an Earth Island Institute project working to protect sharks and critical marine habitat. We are diving and filming with Oakley in eastern Malaysia for an online series called Borneo From Below, which showcases Borneo’s diverse marine environment. The shallow reef where we are diving projects from a long reef flat nearly a kilometer from Kalapuan Island. A …more

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Scottish Whisky Goes Green

Reducing the environmental footprint of Scotland’s third largest industry

Energetic business, distilling. Not necessarily in the sense of hauling weighty sacks of malt about, but in the sense of bringing wort up to mashing temperature, holding it there while the sugars are extracted, cooling it down to pitching temperature, and then heating it up again in the still for distillation. In a single year, Scottish distilleries process five billion liters of wort — a sweet liquid that is fermented to make whisky  — so cleaner, cheaper energy is a priority in the whisky industry.

Photo of Whisky StillsPhoto by Yves CosentinoThe Scottish whisky industry is working to reduce the environmental impacts of whisky production.

Then, too, 90 percent of the water and all of the grain used in the production process ends up as waste. And since it makes sense to site whisky factories near the raw materials, many distilleries have been built in isolated glens; fuel (except peat, where applicable) has to be shipped in, and all of the product has to be shipped out.

For decades, the Scottish whisky industry has been making modest efforts to reduce its environmental impact. Simple waste reduction measures such as feeding spent grain (“draff”) to livestock and using the protein-rich pot ale left over after distillation as soil conditioner have long been the norm. In the 1970s Glengarioch, one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland, briefly used its waste heat to warm nearby greenhouses. And since 1990, waste heat from Bowmore’s distillery has made a tropical spa of the community swimming pool, sited in a former warehouse at the distillery gates. 

But it took the slowly-unfolding emergency of climate change to trigger a coordinated attack on energy consumption and waste. The Scottish whisky industry made its first Climate Change Agreement with the UK Government in 1999. Then, in 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association, with the support of both UK and Scottish governments, launched an independent environmental strategy, a list of targets it describes as “the most ambitious voluntary sustainability strategy of any manufacturing sector.” Since then, the pace of change has continuously accelerated.

By 2012, the industry had cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent from 2008 levels, despite an 11 percent increase in whisky production. Meanwhile, its energy consumption grew by little more than 1 percent, and the proportion of energy …more

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India’s Emissions Could Push World into Dangerous Warming Zone, Scientists Warn

Experts say that if nation grows at expected rate without emission controls, Earth will breach critical two degree rise

India’s growth in emissions could tip the world over the threshold to dangerous climate change, experts have said.

The alert comes as the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, prepares to visit the UK on Thursday for talks on issues including the environment.

Photo of Port in IndiaPhoto by Geo ThermalA port in Chennai, India. Experts warn that without emissions controls, economic growth in India could push world past two degree warming threshold.

India is due to ask the UK and other rich nations to share breakthroughs in renewable energy and other “clean” technology, and for help financing a huge expansion in efficiency and solar and wind power. It is unclear whether British officials will pressure Modi to consider a tougher emissions target.

Before the UN climate summit in Paris in December, India has pledged to increase carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions more slowly than the economy grows. The latest analysis of India’s plan calculates that if it expands as it hopes — by more than 8.5 percent a year — emissions will reach 9 billion megatons by the end of the next decade.

This is about one-fifth of the total annual emissions that scientists calculate the world can emit in 2030 and still have a more than a 50 percent chance of avoiding the global temperature rising more than two degrees Celsius, considered a dangerous threshold. Although India would rank second behind China for total emissions, unlike China and other large emitters it has not set a date by which they would peak, while new coal-fired power and other new infrastructure would commit the country to relatively high pollution levels for decades.

“If India’s plans to burn coal go ahead, it will make it hard for us to make the two degree target,” said Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham institute on climate change and the environment, at the London School of Economics, which carried out the study. “The chances are growth will be lower, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll get down to a pattern consistent with two degrees.”

Further pressure has been put on India by the International Energy Agency, which on Tuesday published it’s annual report on global energy use, and considered the Indian case to be so critical that it devoted several chapters to the country’s rapidly …more

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