Taking the Temperature of The Cancun Climate Talks Program 1 of 2

Taking the Temperature of The Cancun Climate Talks Program 1 of 2
Living on Earth
Cancun, Mexico
Taking the Temperature of The Cancun Climate Talks Program 1 of 2

Air Date: December 3, 2010 FULL SHOW (stream/download) as an MP3 file


Taking the Temperature of the Cancun Climate Talks (stream / mp3)

In Cancun Mexico, co-hosts Steve Curwood and Bruce Gellerman eavesdrop on opinion makers, protesters and negotiators at the 16th Conference of Parties, the annual United Nations climate talks. After disappointment in Copenhagen last year, hopes are not high for a major breakthrough on control of greenhouse gases, but attendees do expect progress on forestry protection and targeting cash to help developing nations adapt to climate change. (5:30)

The Climate in 2010 (stream / mp3)

Delegates in Cancun have another year’s worth of climate science research to consider. Host Steve Curwood talks with Harvard Professor Daniel Schrag, a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, about some of the most sobering studies of the past year and what they mean for the changing climate. (6:30)

In Kalimantan, Big Experiment, Big Hopes / Ingrid Lobet (stream / mp3)

Climate and forestry experts are trying to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation across the tropics. In Indonesia, on the giant island of Kalimantan (Borneo), The Nature Conservancy is trying to persuade timber companies and government officials to leave more trees standing and make money in the process. (18:00)

REDD Corruption (stream / mp3)

The plan to pay developing nations to save their forests and the carbon in them is potentially worth billions of dollars under the UN scheme called REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Nearly $4 billion dollars is already on the table, and this cash has attracted both conservationists and criminals. Host Bruce Gellerman follows the money with Davyth Stewart, of the anti-corruption watchdog group, Global Witness. (5:40)

Negotiating Rights to Forests / Mitra Taj (stream / mp3)

One problem with forest conservation under REDD is ensuring the rights and livelihoods of people that live in and depend on, tropical forest. While some countries are keen to write explicit protections for forest peoples, most are not, and its unclear what kind of guarantees might come out of negotiations in Cancun. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj brings us the story. (7:45)

Cancun Voices (stream / mp3)

We hear the voices, hopes and opinions of some of the many educators, environmentalists and officials in Cancun for the climate summit. (2:00)

Earth Ear (stream / mp3)


Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOSTS: Bruce Gellerman, Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Daniel Schrag, Davyth StewartREPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Mitra Taj

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood, ocean-side at the UN climate summit in Cancun Mexico, where delegates from more than 190 countries hope to find some means of agreement to fight global warming.

FIGUERES: Cancun will be successful, if parties compromise, if they make sure that in the process of getting what they want, they allow others to leave with what they need.

GELLERMAN: What the world needs now is an end to greenhouse gases. One scientist says we have plenty of time to prepare but we need to worry now.

SCHRAG: What matters to climate change is the total greenhouse gas emissions of the planet over the next 100 years. The bad news is that of course you have to ultimately drive greenhouse gas emissions to nothing to fix the problem.

CURWOOD: These stories and more from the UN climate summit in Cancun Mexico just ahead right here on Living on Earth. Que darse aqui!

GELLERMAN: Stay with us.

Taking the Temperature of the Cancun Climate Talks

CURWOOD: From the UN Climate Summit in Cancun, Mexico, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Waves crash along Cancun’s famed beaches. It’s a timeless backdrop to the climate negotiations where delegates from around the world are racing against time. This is the 16th year the United Nations has convened its Conference of Parties – the meeting designed to hammer out an agreement to deal with greenhouse gases and global warming.


Delegates at the COP16 Climate Change Conference. (Photo: UNFCCC)


CURWOOD: It’s the warm waters off the Yucatan Peninsula and Atlantic Ocean that help drive tropical storms. Five years ago Hurricane Wilma ripped through here. The monster storm, packing 175 mile-an-hour winds, did billions in damage and destroyed dozens of lives. This year’s Atlantic tropical storm season just ended. With twelve full-blown hurricanes, it’s the second highest on modern record.


GELLERMAN: The music is hot as climate negotiators, members of NGOs, and journalists cool off after a long day of meetings gathering in a bar at the Moon Palace complex, the mega hotel where the climate talks are taking place.


CURWOOD: This year, climate delegates in Cancun need to demonstrate at least some progress after last year’s disastrous meeting in Copenhagen. At that summit what seemed to be a done deal --- a legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gases -- came undone. Producing just a last minute, voluntary accord, brokered by the largest emitting nations. This year’s hurricane season may have been the calm before the storm.


GELLERMAN: Despite intense security measures at the UN climate summit- navy ships patrolling off shore, federal police, and I.D. scrutiny- a group of Mexican workers—recyclers demanding an end to waste incinerators and landfills which emit greenhouse gases---were able to organize a demonstration inside the convention hotel.


CURWOOD: Less dramatic but no less emphatic was Marstella Jack who advises Micronesia in the climate talks.

JACK: What I see out of this conference, I think, is more talk on process, only process, but very little on content. What needs to be done is we need to have a fair ambitious and binding legal document that binds all big countries and small countries alike to take serious cuts in their emissions so we can save our planet.


Countries from all over the world are represented at the conference. (Photo: UNFCCC)

CURWOOD: But the talks this year in Cancun are not expected to lead to an all-encompassing treaty. Christiana Figueres is the new executive secretary of the UN climate convention. She says what’s needed now after last year’s near disaster in Copenhagen is incremental progress.

FIGUERES: Cancun will be successful, if parties compromise, if they make sure that in the process of getting what they want, they allow others to leave with what they need.

CURWOOD: One positive sign: contentious rhetoric between the world’s two largest emitters of climate changing gases- the US and China - seems to have calmed, at least for the moment. China’s lead negotiator Su Wei, is director general of China’s climate department - and a veteran of the rough and tumble, and often troubled U.S.-China talks.

CURWOOD: What can come out of Cancun this year? What can happen here?

SU WEI: For Cancun, it’s not the end of the game. It’s only a part, a very important step in the long process. Of course, we would hope that since this is a global challenge, we need active politics and actions from all parties and we also hope the U.S. would honor its commitments in terms of reductions of its emissions of greenhouse gases.

GELLERMAN: Leading the United States delegation in Cancun the first week is Jonathan Pershing. Pershing says the United States will deliver on its pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 percent by 2020.


Leaders at the COP16 Climate Change Conference. (Photo: UNFCCC)

PERSHING: The president has also made and we continue to affirm the commitment that we made in Copenhagen last year. We are not moving away from that. Clearly, the next steps of implementing that are going to have to go through Congress, through regulation, through executive order. We’ll work on all of those tracks, all of those avenues at home to implement those programs and meet that commitment.

GELLERMAN: And, in what may be a significant breakthrough, the U.S. and China have reportedly agreed on a mechanism for measuring and verifying cuts in greenhouse gas emissions—something the U.S. had insisted on, and China had resisted. The bilateral deal may have helped save the multinational UN process.

GELLERMAN: Jennifer Morgan, is Director of the Climate and Energy program at World Resources Institute.


Community members gather in front of the Municipal Palace in Cancun, Mexico to pray in support of climate reform during the COP16 Climate Change Conference, on Tuesday Nov. 30, 2010. (Photo: Mark Malijan)

MORGAN: What happens here in some ways, the stakes are even higher than they were in Copenhagen because in some ways this is the second chance to get at least something moving forward, and if you can’t get it done on the second chance I don’t know if you get a third try.

CURWOOD: The Cancun climate talks now enter week two. Marstella Jack from Micronesia says with just a week left, the world is watching and waiting for action.

JACK: We’ve talked too much. Too much talk. The only action that we’re seeing is the sea level rising and the temperature heating up. This is about survival, it’s not carbon credits. It’s about survival.

GELLERMAN: Scientists now warn the risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shift is growing – and the evidence keeps mounting.

Related link:Visit the website for the UN Climate Change Conference

The Climate in 2010

Harvard Professor and PCAST member, Daniel Schrag. (Photo: Daniel Schrag)

CURWOOD: To talk about the latest research, we turn now to Professor Daniel Schrag. He studies climate change at Harvard and directs the University’s Center for the Environment. He’s also a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

SCHRAG: You know there's a nice study that really put all this together that came out this year from the National Academy, and basically tripling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which we are likely to do in the next hundred to a hundred and fifty years, is really unprecedented, and there are all sorts of things that are going to have difficulties adapting to that, including human society. We are going to see devastation of species- something like 40 percent of the biodiversity is ultimately threatened today because it’s happening at so fast a rate that animals can’t migrate.

The other thing that came out of this National Academy report is the idea that fundamentally, what matters to climate change is the total greenhouse gas emissions of the planet over the next hundred years. Some of the climate policies that are focused on getting a ten or twenty percent reduction in the next ten years or twenty years- the bigger scale of things, actually that doesn’t matter so much. The bad news is of course, is that we have to ultimately drive greenhouse gas emissions to nothing to fix the problem.

CURWOOD: What about the permafrost? There was a study that was reported on, I think in the Journal of Science, on the melting of the permafrost that’s under the Arctic Ocean. What did you think of that study?

SCHRAG: Well, I think that study and many others similar to it, have pointed over the last many years to the amplifying factor of the permafrost melting which leads to lots of soil carbon both in the form of methane and the form of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, and, providing a positive feedback to the burning of fossil fuels. Another way to think about this is that we’ve started the ball rolling from burning greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels and now the natural carbon system is going to take over. And the big question is: how fast does the methane and CO2 get released?

CURWOOD: So what other studies from this past year looked into feedback loops from natural systems that might amplify climate change?

SCHRAG: Well, one very important change that is continuing to occur is the melting of Arctic sea ice. And, the big story this year was that we didn’t set a new record in terms of the area of arctic sea ice, but if you actually look at the images of the arctic ice cap what you see is the area of very thick ice that is there perennially year after year, was almost half of what it had been in 2007. So, even that though there was a lot of ice cover, the actual permanent very thick ice had decreased significantly.

CURWOOD: Now, arctic ice is already in the ocean, so if it melts it doesn’t raise the sea level. What about the ice that is on the ground in places like Antarctica and Greenland?

SCHRAG: When we project sea level changes due to melting of ice, we tend to be extremely conservative. And so, for example, in the last IPCC report, what they did was they essentially assumed that the current rate of melting from Greenland would persist unchanged for the rest of the century, and that leads to only five centimeters of sea level rise from the melting of Greenland over the entire century.

Now, if you were to actually do a risk analysis, what you might do is perhaps assume that as the earth warmed, the ice would melt in proportion to the warming. If you make that simple assumption, you end up with the result that was published this year showing that perhaps the better estimate of sea level rise over the century is about one to two meters. So, three to six feet of sea level rise threatens every coastal city in the world. It’s a really big deal.

CURWOOD: Lets talk about drought. What have we learned in the past year about the prospect of drought as a function of climate change.

SCHRAG: Climate change is likely to bring more stress on both natural ecosystems and human society that will make dealing with droughts more and more difficult. For example, high altitude glaciers all over the world in the tropics are melting and exponentially increasing rains. And, since they’re the source for a lot of water in very important, strategic rivers all over the world, it means that when you have a drought because of meteorological conditions and you don’t have the backup of mountain-fed streams and rivers, it makes dealing with that drought all the more difficult.

CURWOOD: What about food? We’re going from six billion, well actually almost seven billion, to some nine billion in 2050 or so. How will climate impact our ability to feed ourselves?

SCHRAG: One of the interesting studies that has come out over the last few years suggests crops have a very complex relationship to not just rainfall, but actual temperature. For mild temperature increases, yields increase a little bit and then they cross a threshold and drop very dramatically. And, it’s a non-linear effect. A nice example is 2003 when Europe had that devastating heat wave and crop yields dropped by about 30 percent.



That 2003 temperature is likely to be the average temperature a hundred years from now, for summer. And there’s a real question we have about plant physiology. Do we think that our ability to genetically engineer plants and selectively breed them- will we be able to find crops that produce high yields in a warmer climate and currently, there’s some research that suggests no. In fact, there are real physiological limits to plants because of the cycling of water through their stems that may fundamentally limit their productivity. We may see a big drop-off in food production.

CURWOOD: Now of course, you’re close to the White House, being on president Obama’s council of advisors on science and technology. How is the science that we have been discussing being presented in that setting and what feeling do you have that the President gets this?

SCHRAG: I have been in a meeting with the president where myself, and a number of other climate experts, briefed him directly, and it was very clear that the president does get it. He does understand how serious a problem this is. What he’s struggling with through a rather severe recession is, how to get the American public concerned about acting on climate change when they’re really worrying about their pocket books. And, that’s a very difficult problem. I don’t envy him. But, in terms of the science, in terms of the ultimate impact, he does understand it.

CURWOOD: Harvard Professor Dan Schrag, thank you so much.

SCHRAG: Thank you.

Related links:Learn more about Daniel SchragVisit the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, PCAST’s, websiteRead climate reports put out by the National Academy of Sciences

[GROUP SINGING]CURWOOD: Earlier this week, community members gathered in downtown Cancun to sing and pray in support of the UN climate summit.[GROUP SINGING]CURWOOD: Just ahead: a new scheme to save forests in Borneo. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

In Kalimantan, Big Experiment, Big Hopes

Intact forest in Berau District, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

GELLERMAN: REDD is also a major opportunity for conservationists who, for decades, have been trying to save the world's rain forests with little success. Under REDD, owners of forests would be paid to stop deforestation and keep the carbon in their trees.

The Nature Conservancy, perhaps the world's richest environmental organization, is already trying to get REDD going on the ground. It’s piloting a new approach in Borneo that could provide a template for the rest of Indonesia, and other countries as well. From eastern Borneo, Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.



LOBET: Borneo. Indonesians call it Kalimantan, tropical forest iconic for its orangutans and its seeming endlessness. Coal mines and oil palm trees have flattened much of it but you can still see much of it, if you get up high enough. Nawa Irianto, with The Nature Conservancy, climbs the rungs of a fire tower.

IRIANTO: Kalimantan in the past was almost all like this. All of the island! But now only in the remote area we can find a few like this.

LOBET: Far below, a blur of brown-grey swings from tree to tree: monkeys.

IRIANTO: If brown or reddish, then it's the very rare one: Coo-coo-coo-coo!

LOBET: For years The Nature Conservancy tried to protect forests like this by buying them. But even a group with a billion dollar budget can only afford to buy a fraction of the forest. It’s a kind of triage: Conservancy biologists pore over satellite photos of disappearing forest. They know most can't be saved.

GRISCOM: I think, you know, the mentality that we, the conservation community, has had for a long time is sort of this painful process of prioritizing only the most critically endangered places.

LOBET: That's Bronson Griscom, a climate specialist with The Nature Conservancy. Once wildlife experts identify the very most endangered places, they try to protect them, for example, by making them into a park.

GRISCOM: And that is and remains a core strategy for The Nature Conservancy. But the world is not going to be one big park and we recognize that.

LOBET: Even when land is protected as national park, these parks often exist only on paper. Hungry people-- sometimes people who were displaced to create the parks in the first place-- farm and hunt inside the parks. Plantation companies build roads. Park rangers are few and underpaid.

Faced with this reality, The Nature Conservancy made a major break with the past. It began working with logging companies. Griscom says conservationists figured out a lot more animals survive in a timber concession than a forest converted to agriculture.

GRISCOM: The difference between a well-managed forest, logged using sustainable, well thought-out logging practices, that are designed to mimic natural disturbance, and a converted forest-- converted to some kind of plantation like oil palm-- is night and day. You are talking about a system that is maintaining almost all the biodiversity on the one hand as compared to a system that is maintaining very little of it

LOBET: The Nature Conservancy says: just come take a look.


LOBET: So we travel to the end of the road and from there take a boat to Long Pay, an indigenous Dayak village.



LOBET: Jonas Lakan, a community leader, welcomes visitors into a traditional raised house. There’s a computer and maps of the village's traditional forests. Just a few years ago, Lakan recounts, this village was locked in a conflict with a well-known timber company that was clear-cutting.


VOICEOVER: They logged our fruit trees. They even cut down the trees where we keep our bees.

LOBET: At a certain point the community got fed up with the company, and took away the keys to the bulldozers in protest. This cutting was contrary to the way they’d used the forest for hundreds of years.


VOICEOVER: We held a protest and halted their production. We shut them down for three years.

LOBET: And for three full years, there was a standoff. Villagers and logging company didn’t talk. The Nature Conservancy got involved and people in Long Pay village began to organize and then negotiate with the timber company. They won the right to monitor tree-felling, and the company agreed to avoid cutting in certain areas.


VOICEOVER: With TNC's assistance for mediation, we took the company back. Before the conflict, they cut down any kind of timber they wanted. Now we monitor their activities and they cannot take any tree under two feet in diameter. That's our way of conserving our forest. Because if we cut the small ones, we won’t have any trees left.

LOBET: So, resolution. And now several people have filled Jonas Lakan's living room, and they want to say why this forest is crucial for people who live here.


VOICEOVER: Everything we do, we take from the forest-- potatoes, vegetables, sago palm, rattan, you can gather them and even get enough to sell them.


VOICEOVER: To me the forest is like my car! Because I can get wood to make my boat from trees there. That’s why we care so much about our forest because it's like our transportation.


VOICEOVER: We're very careful about which trees we cut down. In fact we only cut down trees when we need to build our boats or our houses because we depend on the trees for our bees.

LOBET: At the mention of bees, several people have something to say.


VOICEOVER: Honey is our sugar, we mix it in water and drink it!


VOICEOVER: It's so much easier for people who don't depend on the forest, they can just made decisions from afar. But for us who depend on it, if the forest is gone, what will we do?

LOBET: The villagers say that they're satisfied now with the timber company and the logging is more sustainable. The Nature Conservancy is trying to build a replicable model based on experiences like this one in Long Pai. They’re hoping to help build a model for all of Borneo. Or even the whole country. A model for keeping carbon out of the air, having communities benefit and protecting forest life at the same time.

To understand how, remember that as part of international climate talks, richer countries are pledging billions of dollars to poorer nations to help them develop cleanly, so they can leapfrog the dirty industry of the last century. Billions of dollars are being committed to preserving forests and the carbon within them to address climate change. These billions dwarf the interest the world has ever shown in rainforest protection until now. Again, The Nature Conservancy's Bronson Griscom.

GRISCOM: You are really talking about forests all over the place. And a level of financing that would generate national scale reductions of substantial decrease of the total deforestation across a country. Instead of dealing with, sort of this triage approach, prioritize a few spots and go after those, it’s really a much bigger scale.

LOBET: In fact The Nature Conservancy sees international climate finance as the last big opportunity for tropical conservation. But for carbon money to actually change the game, village-level efforts like the one in Long Pay must be scaled up to whole-country reductions in carbon emissions. In this area of Borneo that cannot be done without timber companies because they lease 40 percent of the land. So The Nature Conservancy is approaching them, one by one, to get them to improve their practices.


LOBET: It's an approach some environmental groups would find questionable.


LOBET: Red splinters spike up like daggers from a fresh tree stump.


LOBET: And swiftly, a 240 horsespower Caterpillar bulldozer drags the log, wracking the trees along the way. Finally, bulldozer and log arrive at the logging road, a muddy gash.


LOBET: Probably 80 feet across, 60 feet of road and ten feet of piles. When it rains, these roads pour silt into the streams. This is Belayan River Timber’s concession. It’s been clear- cutting. But the man in charge here, pak Totok, instead of seeming defensive, seems dismayed.

TOTOK: (Bahasa Indonesia translation) As a forester this makes me very sad. My conscience wants more sustainable foresting. In the future, we will keep learning to do things better.

LOBET: Do things better because Belayan River Timber and The Nature Conservancy are coming up with less destructive ways of logging.


LOBET: Using engines much smaller than bulldozers.


LOBET: Think of this as "no-gash" logging. Again, Bronson Griscom:

GRISCOM: With this system, you are sliding the logs along a very narrow skid road that requires no bulldozer. So, in the spirit of small is beautiful, we have a much smaller machine, it’s an engine. Do you know how much horsepower?

MAN 4: Twenty-two!

GRISCOM: Twenty-two horsepower. And what is the bulldozer?


MAN 4: Three hundred. Two hundred to three hundred.

GRISCOM: So you have an engine that is ten times smaller, that is powering a big spool with a metal cable on it, and is just a very simple device.LOBET: This cable-winch system uses one-tenth the fuel of logging with bulldozers. It's low-key enough that one guy is riding a log on its slow path uphill as if it’s a surfboard. Smaller engines mean fewer emissions. And fewer roads mean fewer cut trees. More carbon left in the forest. The Nature Conservancy is now working with eight of the 13 timber companies who own rights in this district.


LOBET: One of them recently won FSC or Forest Stewardship Council certification. Here again is the Conservancy's Nawa Irianto.

IRIANTO: In this plot we still can see, lets see: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven big trees. Means per hectare there are still seven big trees. It's still a healthy forest.

LOBET: Irianto is showing off a forest that still has large trees, even though it was logged. This selective logging is a middle path between clear-cutting and roping off the forest. If forests are harvested sustainably, they have the potential to sequester more carbon than if they’re simply left alone. The b

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