Ban Ki-moon ends hands-on involvement in climate change talks

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Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general who made global warming his personal mission, is ending his hands-on involvement with international climate change negotiations, the Guardian has learned.

In a strategic shift, Ban will redirect his efforts from trying to encourage movement in the international climate change negotiations to a broader agenda of promoting clean energy and sustainable development, senior UN officials said.

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban’s realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years. (If not within the next few years, then when? We’re already running out of time.)

“It is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future,” said Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary general for strategic planning and a key adviser to Ban.

The view from UN headquarters will likely dismay developing countries who fought hard at Copenhagen and last year’s summit at Cancún for countries to renew their commitments to the Kyoto protocol in just that type of grand deal.

UN officials say Ban will no longer be deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the next big UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting at Durban in December 2011.

“He will continue to encourage leaders to aim for a higher level of ambition but there will need to be less day-to-day stuff,” said one UN official. “The negotiations are very important, but it is the big-picture issues that he needs to be more engaged with.”

Ban will focus on broader issues of sustainability, which will be in the spotlight at a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, marking 20 years since the first Earth summit.

“Because the circumstances have changed, the nature of his engagement is changing,” Orr said. “The relative balance of his time is shifting towards getting it done on the ground out there.”

UN officials, and those who closely track climate change negotiations, insist that Ban has not lessened his commitment to finding a solution to climate change. Ban has called global warming “the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family”.

“His heart is still there, and he does want to make a breakthrough in his tenure, but this might provide a better platform in the near future,” said one UN official.

However, they say he now believes there are more immediate gains to be made in mobilising international finance to support a green economy in developing countries than in trying to persuade world leaders to commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Others inside the UN system as well as in world capitals have been circling towards a similar conclusion as Ban: that gains in clean energy technology and energy efficiency could do more in the near future to reduce emissions. They could then drive the overarching deal that the UN still sees as necessary.

(Shouldn’t it be a simultaneous thing? Reducing emissions WHILE promoting a green economy – competitive research to find clean energy alternatives and to increase energy efficiency – so that the green economy and the greater awareness it will promote will contribute to reducing emissions, hence creating a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.)

“The idea that the world will gather together and parcel out emissions cuts among the various nations is probably a non-starter at this point,” said Reid Detchon, vice-president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation, a Washington thinktank. “Whether it is in 2012 or 2013, the political consensus does not exist for a top-down approach.”

In operational terms, Ban’s climate change advisory team, which grew to about a dozen people ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, has shrunk to less than five people.

Meanwhile, he is in the course of expanding his advisory team on sustainable development to about a dozen people ahead of the Rio meeting.

“The things that are moving faster are the investments in renewable energy, the kind of actual investments and changes on the ground that will make a difference,” said Tariq Banuri, director of the division of sustainable development at the UN’s department of economic and social affairs. “There should be enough forums to accelerate and support those – some may have to wait for climate negotiations and some may not.”

Ban still believes an international agreement on climate change is essential, Orr said. “The sails haven’t been trimmed. We are still going in the same direction, but we will have to tack back and forth between the multilateral negotiating process and national realities on the ground.”

The strategic shift by the UN secretary general in some ways mirrors thinking in Washington, where environmentalists are looking at how to many progress on climate change without votes in Congress or the regulatory help of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

In the case of the UN, however, Ban’s decision is not a product of failure. The climate negotiations at Cancún produced modest progress on some of the essential pre-conditions to a global deal, such as climate finance and forest preservation.

The first public indication of a shift in direction was delivered in a speech to the UN general assembly on 14 January, in which Ban ranked sustainable development as the lead item on his agenda for 2011, ahead of climate change, human rights, security and humanitarian aid for Haiti.

(Why not just subsume ‘climate change’ under ‘sustainable development’? It’s all interlinked, isn’t it?)

But UN officials and others who closely follow climate diplomacy say the UN chief had been considering how best to move forward on climate change at least since the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

Ban has said repeatedly he sees climate change as the challenge of the generation. He staked his reputation as secretary general on gathering world leaders at Copenhagen, arguing that environment ministers and bureaucrats could not hope to command the authority to sign on to agreements that would essentially require the rewiring of their entire economy.

The hands-on approach worked in 2007 when Ban stepped in to prevent a collapse of the Bali summit over George Bush’s refusal to agree to emissions cuts.

But the elevated hopes for reaching a final deal at Copenhagen resulted instead in acrimony and a tentative last-minute understanding among the big polluters that was not fully endorsed by the 190 countries in the UN negotiating process.

The Cancún meeting, overseen by Christiana Figueresmanaged to get the talks back on track, and some see Ban’s disengagement as a sign of confidence in the negotiation process.

“The phase the negotiations are going into now is one more of rule-making, rather than heads-of-state engagement,” said Jennifer Morgan, who directs the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “It is just in a different phase than it was before, and the fact that Cancún was the moderate success that it was allows it to carry on the process in the way that it normally does with ministers and officials.”


Beyond watchdog: engaging business for change

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The whole idea of inhabiting the margins really bothers me, safely watching decisions being made by others, then commenting, critiquing or second-guessing from a distance. It’s too easy. Dare I say too academic? And it borders on self-righteous. Given what’s at stake for Nature these days, being a perpetual observer, with no real skin in the game, is no longer defendable.

I have always preferred to be at the centre of things, fully engaged with those in power, and PARTY to the decisions that the watchdogs ponder from the sidelines. Doing, not watching, is where you can take the kind of risks that make a real difference. Because, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

There are those who caution against engaging business at all. Too big. Too powerful. Amoral at best. Immoral at worst. Profit-driven and corrupting by association, to paraphrase Machiavelli.

But since the market capitalization of the world’s largest companies rivals the gross domestic product of many medium-sized countries, we have no choice but to engage business. Their operations dramatically impact the environment on a local-to-global scale, and they affect each of our daily lives. Therefore, to leave the corporate sector unaddressed would be the strategic equivalent of hiding your head in the sand.  Do you want to make a difference, or not?

So the question is not whether to engage, but how. Further, I believe such engagement is not just a matter of fending off evil. Rather, much good can come from it. To those who feel that anyone who engages business has sold out, I ask, “Just how deep is your commitment to our cause, if you won’t deal with those who affect it most?”


Go to the right place out of goodwill, if you wish. Or go there because you were pressured, if you must. But go there you will. Or perish.

I like this line. Harsh, but real.

Each wolf the last

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Treat each bear as the last bear.
Each wolf the last, each caribou.
Each track the last track.
Gone spoor, gone scat.
There are no more deertrails,
no more flyways.
Treat each animal as sacred,
each minute our last.
Ghost hooves. Ghost skulls.
Death rattles and
dry bones.
Each bear walking alone in warm night air

Gary Lawless


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“Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.” – Kenyan proverb

Now, if only everyone thought that far ahead.

It really makes me feel like I should resolve not to bring a child into the world… because everyone is innately selfish (we just. can’t. help. it.), everyone is living only for themselves, and most people are of the mindset that global environmental change “doesn’t concern me, it’s not gonna happen within my lifetime anyway/I’ll be dead by the time the world really starts falling apart“.

What kind of world has my generation inherited? What kind of world would my potential child inherit?


The ethics of posterity

From the reading “Who Cares for Posterity?” by Garrett Hardin.

…as though there were a tie
And obligation to posterity.
We get them, bear them, breed, and nurse:
What has posterity done for us?

John Trumbull (1750-1831)

The question is surely an ethical one.


The standard ethical dialogue is between people who stand face to face with each other, seeking a reasonable basis for reciprocal altruism. Posterity has no chance to show its face in the here and now.

In cost-benefit analysis, we attempt to list and evaluate all the costs (negative benefits); similarly with all the (positive) benefits; then we strike a balance for the whole, on which action can be based. If the balance is plus, we go ahead; if minus, we stop. The decision is simple if costs and benefits are encountered at practically the same moment. But what if they are separated by a considerable gap in time? What if the benefits come now and the costs do not turn up for a generation? Contrariwise, what if the costs have to be paid now for benefits that come later?

Do today’s short term benefits of more electricity and more agricultural land in the upper reaches of the river outweigh tomorrow’s losses in the lower valley resulting from salination and loss of fertility?

Probably their reaction would have been that of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield: “Something will turn up.” Such is the faith of the technological optimists. “Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow will find a solution to today’s problems.”

Conservation and Schrodinger’s cat

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In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment involving an unsuspecting, limbo-bound feline, the mere act of observing something can change its state.

The very idea of ecological science as it’s practised nowadays is that what you see when you go into the great expanse of  nature is the reality; that you’re observing animals doing what they do, unaffected by your presence.

And in this week’s Nature, Claire Saraux and her colleagues report a 10-year project on penguins that demonstrates pretty unequivocally a big problem associated with the standard research tool, the flipper band.
As my news story relates, in a nutshell, the bands harm the penguins – slowing their foraging, shortening their lives and having a major impact on their breeding success.

So for anyone wanting to use flipper bands on penguins while they’re at sea now, there are two dilemmas.

Firstly, will the research produce a conclusion that’s reliable – that isn’t distorted by the bands?

And secondly, are the project’s aims important enough to justify harming the birds?

King penguins, the species used in this study, are pretty abundant, with an estimated population in the millions; so there’s no conservation reason why shortening the lives of some would be an issue.

Even so, many of us would think twice about the ethics of research that carried these consequences.

Would it have been worth harming one whale in order that the whole population could be better conserved?

In many parts of the oceans, you can find fishing boats engaged on something that might sound like an oxymoron – fishing for conservation.

Scientific sampling of ocean areas determines fish abundance. Trials with new nets aim to reduce bycatch, or improve the specificity of fleets for certain fish species or ages – but again, fish die in the process.

So is that justified?

Occasionally, the mere presence of conservation scientists has been enough to damage wildlife.

One of the first principles of medical ethics is “first do no harm” – and some have suggested this could usefully be adopted for conservation too.

But the only way to be sure of doing no harm is to do nothing at all… and then it becomes very difficult to do any good.


The older I grow, the more I know, and the more gray areas become evident to me. Any kind of study is going to be intrusive in some way or another, no matter how hard one tries to make it not. It’s a choice between standing by and doing nothing and watching it all slowly disappear, or making some sacrifices and trying everything you can think of, and sheer, blind hope.

find your place

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Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.
– Gary Snyder

urban jewel

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Manhattan, New York City, surprised me. There was so much to do – Broadway, bright lights, billboards. But the greatest surprise was the urban gem that is Central Park: an underrated respite from the sheer hustle and bustle of the rest of the city.

On my last day in New York City, a crisp winter’s day, I sat on a park bench in Central Park by myself and watched ducks feeding and wading in a Pond not quite frozen over.

The heterogeneity of the urban environment (and of my experiences) intrigued me.