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Did’s Twitterstorm to end fossil fuel subsidies work? Kinda

Youth activists staged a "flash mob" at the Earth Summit talks yesterday, part of a broader effort to roll back subsidies for fossil fuels. (Photo courtesy of Human Impacts Institute.)

The Crazy Twitter Kids got a lesson in international diplomacy yesterday during a panel before the Rio+20 Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The panel was part of a broader push to end an estimated $1 trillion in government subsidies that go to fossil fuel companies around the world each year. At an event that has brought an incredible diversity of people to Rio, this was a largely white, Western bunch, with three Americans and a Scot (who currently resides in New York), no women (with the exception of Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, who introduced the event and then left), and a single researcher from India. Representatives of three environmental groups took turns arguing that it was time to stop pouring our tax money into oil, gas, and coal companies, and instead invest in clean energy like solar and wind.

“We’re handing a $1 trillion bill each year to the most profitable companies the world has ever seen,” said Iain Keith, a campaigner with Avaaz. “The measure of success this week will be whether or not we’re still paying $1 trillion to polluters after Rio.”

It was a clean, simple message at an event that has been characterized by cacophony and chaos, and even as the panelists spoke, it was going bananas on the Interwebs. Jamie Henn, communications director for the climate action group, beamed that, thanks to a “Twitterstorm” orchestrated by his group and others, the hashtag #EndFossilFuelSubsidies” had hit No. 2 on the list of top trending topics on Twitter worldwide. (No. 1 was “20FactsAboutMe.”) He rattled off the names of celebrities (Stephen Fry, Mark Ruffalo) and politicians (Nancy Pelosi, Mike Lee) who had added their voices to the storm. “We’re looking to see if that message can break through here in Rio,” he said.

If the conference room was any indication, it didn’t.


For shame, America: Canadians dominate dubious awards in Rio

Friends, Americans, countrymen: WHERE IS YOUR PRIDE?

There was a day when the United States was a noble nation, a regular presence atop the podium, always leading the medal count. Now, the Canadians are eating our lunch -- and they’re not being nice about it. “Yeah, you guys used to win all these awards,” one Canuck told me last night. “I guess we’re on top of the heap now.”

He was talking about all the Fossil of the Day awards, of course -- the honor bestowed on the countries that are the biggest boneheads when it comes to working with the world to safeguard the planet. These dubious honors are being doled out here at the Earth Summit in Rio -- organized by the Climate Action Network and picked by popular vote -- and I can tell you, Americans, unless we get our act together, we’re not going to bring many of them home.

Read more: Politics


Rio cycle: Canadian bikes to Earth Summit (with a little help from trains and buses)

Naomi Devine. (Photo by Zoma Fotografia.)

Thousands of people from around the world have converged on Rio de Janeiro this week for the Earth Summit, a mammoth conference aimed at creating a green economy for the globe. But I can count on one hand the people who got here by bicycle. One finger, actually.

Naomi Devine, a 33-year-old Canadian sustainability planner, rode her bike here from Vancouver, British Columbia. Well, she rode a lot of it, anyway -- and the rest of the time, she rode mass transit. She says she caught a train from Eugene, Ore., to San Francisco “because it was winter at the time,” and bused from Mexico on. Nonetheless, she estimates she rode about 1,000 miles. It was an incredible, crowd-funded journey, done the hard way (in contrast to this writer, who flew from Seattle to Dallas to Rio, and thought that was a long day).

We all should cut Devine a little slack, because here in Rio, she rides her bike to the summit meetings every day -- a 17-mile round-trip. From experience, I can report that that's freaking BURLY. The traffic here is insane. The bus drivers are suicidal. For once in my life, I’m actually happy that I’m not riding my bike.

Devine was kind enough to answer a few questions after her harrowing morning commute today.

Q. What in the world were you thinking? It's a long freaking way from Canada to Rio.

A. Yeah. Geography was never my strongest subject in school ... These ideas come from the big crazy part of my brain that says things like "Hey, you know what would be awesome? Take your bike and see if you can ride it to the Earth Summit!” and, “You have a month to plan everything! Yeah!" Where most people laugh to themselves and say, “Isn't that a crazy idea,” I go “YES, this is what I need to be doing with my life.” Sometimes you need to just jump in and follow your heart.

Read more: Biking


Rio-ality check: Can the Earth Summit be saved?

In the lead-up to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, boosters branded the event “Hopenhagen.” Along those lines, the Earth Summit this week in Rio de Janeiro might be called “Rio-ality Check.” With just days to go, chaos and disagreement reign: It's a far cry from the master plan for a global green economy that world leaders promised to roll out. Nonetheless, on the fringes we’re seeing some interesting signs that the gathering here won’t be a complete waste of time.

Despite months of talks at the United Nations HQ in New York City and last-minute jockeying here in Rio, the delegates seem unable to agree on anything of any substance. Hell, they haven’t even been able to provide a consistent wifi connection here at RioCentro, a sprawling, heavily guarded conference center on the far edge of the city where the high-level talks are taking place.


40 years of environmental diplomacy — what do we have to show for it?

Image by Mark Rain.

It was 1972, and to anyone who was paying attention, it was obvious that we humans were making a real mess of things. Tropical forests were falling at an alarming rate. Whale populations were in a death spiral. Our cities were choked with smog, our rivers had turned into fire traps, and we were getting the first inklings that all of our industrial activity might actually be warming the globe.

To right the course, representatives from 114 countries met in Stockholm, Sweden, at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment -- the first major global effort to clean up our collective act -- and an era of environmental diplomacy was born.

Four decades later, what do we have to show for it?

First, the bad news:

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A pop culture history of the Earth Summit

World leaders gather next week at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to talk about creating a green economy for the planet. But don’t go thinking this is the first international eco-bash. Bigwigs from the far corners of the globe have been talking about Saving the World for four decades now. Here’s a quick romp through 40 years of international environmental diplomacy, interspersed with Important Cultural Landmarks, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and, just for fun, some notes on what I was doing at the time.


Leaders of the world gather in Stockholm, Sweden, to talk about what a mess we’ve made of the planet. The meetings spawn the United Nations Environment Programme (which is like a program, only fancier) and kick off a generation of environmental treaties and agreements on ozone depletion, protecting biological diversity, hazardous waste, endangered species, and climate change.

Al Green’s song “Let’s Stay Together” hits No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Atmospheric CO2, the main driver of global warming, hovers just under 330 parts per million.

I am born, on Oct. 24, in a Salt Lake City hospital.

Read more: Climate Change


Off our chests: What breasts tell us about the state of our world

Photo by Corrynn Cochran.

Florence Williams is a decorated environmental writer, one of my personal heroes (we launched our careers at the same ragtag Western environmental mag), and author of the new book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. I caught up with her over a cup of coffee this week and learned a little about the biological theories of bustiness, the chemical cocktails that are showing up in breast milk, and a smartphone app that makes my childhood days of sneaking peeks at Playboy bunnies look positively pedestrian.

Q. Why write a book about breasts?

A. The idea occurred to me when I was breastfeeding. I hadn’t really thought about my breasts before that, but suddenly, I was totally wowed by them and what they were able to do. It’s totally amazing. And then of course I learned that there were toxins in breast milk, and so that really launched me down this path of trying to learn how modern life has changed breasts and how breasts evolved and why they’re so special to us to begin with.

Q. Why are human breasts so different from other mammals'?

Read more: Living


17-year-old tells world leaders to step up, give her a future

Brittany Trilford.

If you had just a few minutes to address world leaders -- to give the ultimate “My Fellow Earthlings” speech -- what would you say? That was essentially the question behind A Date With History, a challenge sponsored by the climate campaign Tcktcktck, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Climate Nexus. They invited anyone between the ages of 13 and 30 to write a speech addressing the attendees of the Earth Summit in Rio next month.

Tell the bigwigs about what kind of future you want, they said. The best speechifier will win a trip to Rio -- and possibly a chance to address the gathering in person.

The videos streamed in from the far corners of the planet. The web-surfing public narrowed the field to 22. And a star-studded jury including Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah picked the winner.

Her name is Brittany Trilford. She’s 17, from Wellington, New Zealand, and yeah, she’s got some things to say to the folks who are in charge -- about broken promises, about the consequences of corporate and government actions, and about what we could learn from nature about how to run the planet.


What humans hath wrought: What happens when we mess with Mother Nature?

Click to embiggen. (Photos c/o the Center for PostNatural History.)

Want to learn about dinosaurs and elephants and mountain gorillas? Head to your local natural history museum. But if you’re looking to study up on genetically engineered corn, lab rats, or Sea-Monkeys, get thee to the north end of Pittsburgh. There, on a rough little commercial strip with a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, and art galleries, you’ll find the Center for PostNatural History, an outfit run by a local art professor for the express purpose of exploring all the stuff the natural history museums leave out.

Rich Pell, the scruffy proprietor who teaches electronic media classes in the art school at nearby Carnegie Mellon University, sat behind the counter on a recent afternoon wearing a T-shirt from the Smithsonian decorated with a diagram of the tree of life. He explained that his mini-museum focuses on “intentional human changes to the biological world.” Read: dog and chicken breeding, genetically modified fruit flies, and everything in between.

"In a post-natural family tree, the common ancestor always leads back to a person," he explains -- "a breeder, a hobbyist," or a white-coated lab tech.


Greens break silence, ask Obama to attend Earth Summit

Well, it’s not the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but it’s a start.

A coalition of U.S. environmental and social justice groups has asked President Obama to step up and attend the Earth Summit, a gathering of international bigwigs next month in Rio. It'll be an important opportunity to meet influential people from other countries, attend critical meetings, and lead high-level negotiations. Oh, and figure out how to build a green economy, Van Jones-style, around the globe.