Letter from Bali: A tragic truth

Professor Andrew Light laments the unnecessary line in the sand the U.S. has drawn in Bali

This is a guest essay from Andrew Light, an environmental ethicist and professor of philosophy and public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. He attended the Bali meetings as an observer and participant in a side event. The essay comes to us from Nusa Dua, Indonesia. ----- I must admit, I clapped. I was probably among the loudest. A line in the sand. Photo: iStockphoto With the negotiations here in Bali for the U.N. conference on climate change facing an apparent intractable deadlock going into their last day, I was in a standing-room-only auditorium to hear former Vice President Al Gore address the assembled environmental community, business leaders, and state representatives. For those familiar with Gore's stump speech on global warming, and his acceptance address for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier in the week, much in his comments was familiar. One line changed all that. Cautiously hoped for by some, unanticipated by most, it changed the climate in the room considerably: "I am not a representative of my government, so I am not bound by diplomatic niceties. My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali. [Applause.] We all know that." With these words, Gore expressed the extreme sense of frustration most in the room had been feeling this past week over the U.S. delegation's refusal to commit to language in the Bali roadmap for cuts of 25 to 40 percent of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by industrialized countries in the next extension of the Kyoto Protocol due to be settled in 2009. More than that, by openly criticizing the Bush administration, Gore had definitively answered those tempted to lump all Americans together on this issue -- a welcome relief for those of us who had become progressively more embarrassed by our country's position and inability to effectively explain its reasons. When offered, those reasons were simply lame. Why did the U.S. block the emissions cut goal? To avoid "prejudging" the outcome of the next treaty. In the end they won, finally getting an agreement from the E.U. for a document that will not require an outcome wherein the U.S., or any other country, embraces a goal for eventual caps on its emissions. What exactly would the 25 to 40 percent goal have prejudged? This is a difficult question to answer, especially in light of American negotiators' public praise this week of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their recognition of the validity of the conclusions drawn in its most recent Fourth Assessment report. It can't be that cuts are needed -- only skeptics still hold that view, and the administration has renounced this position. It must be the specific figure proposed in the Bali document and the sorts of economic transformations that would be required to meet cuts in that range. It didn't need to be this way though. The stakes were actually low enough at this meeting that no hard-line brinksmanship was necessary. We could have instead showed up intent on demonstrating a more constructive role for the U.S., sending a message to the world that we are now serious on this issue. Instead, we drew an unnecessary line in the Bali sand.

All's well that ends not completely horribly

Countries strike climate deal in Bali

Apparently they’ve reached some kind of agreement at Bali. Sounds like the last 24 hours have been a real white-knuckler: BALI, Indonesia (CNN) — The …

Big Bali of trouble

It’s time to throw down on the home court

Post by Richard Graves and Erin Condit-Bergren, U.S. youth delegation. Nusa Dua, Bali. We have been sitting outside the closed conference rooms where delegates from around the world engage in the grueling process of working out an international climate policy, line by line. Campaigners, delegates, and journalists mill about, trading rumors and whispering strategy. Everyone has been working nonstop for two whole weeks, and it all has come down to this one long session. The milling crowd reflects nothing of the nuance of the international negotiations, which will determine the future of international climate change policy. Instead, the din reveals the clanking of glasses and the milling hubbub of various national representatives, sound and fury, signifying nothing. The air may be charged, but what exactly are we all waiting for? Everyone is as edgy and nervous as an expectant father banished from the maternity room, yet there will be no agreement born today. At the moment, all we hope for is a plan to negotiate another plan. Why on earth are we here at 2:00 a.m.? We know that in the end, despite all our efforts at the conference and over the last year, the White House delegates will ignore the will of the American people and even the plight of their own children. The sad truth is that while we have done so much over the last year and won so many victories, when we try to get our own government to represent us it is like we are the nagging conscience they have grown comfortable ignoring.

Time for some rehab

Agriculture is drunk on corn-based ethanol

Thomas Dobbs is Professor Emeritus of Economics at South Dakota State University, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow. ----- American agriculture is becoming addicted to corn-based ethanol, and the economic and environmental effects of this addiction call for some intervention! The explosive growth in U.S. ethanol production from corn is having worldwide ramifications. December 6 articles in The Economist ("Cheap no more" and "The end of cheap food") trace the impacts of ethanol production on prices of other crops and on food. Rising crop prices can benefit farmers not only in the U.S., but also farmers who have marketable surpluses in other countries. Many consumers, however, are hurt by the rising food prices. This is especially true of urban and landless rural poor in developing countries. According to The Economist's food-price index, food prices have risen in real (inflation-adjusted) terms by 75 percent since 2005. International Food Policy Research Institute data cited by The Economist indicates "the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce caloric intake by another 4-8 percent in Africa and 2-5 percent in Asia by 2020." The growth in ethanol production is hardly a market phenomenon. According to The Economist, Federal subsidies for ethanol production already come to over $7 billion a year. Moreover, many previous years of cheap corn that resulted from Federal farm program subsidies helped lay the economic foundation for ethanol plants already built or under construction. Implications for energy and farm policies? What are the policy implications of this "food versus fuel" conflict that past and present energy and farm policies have created? As far as the ethanol industry is concerned, its interests trump all other interests, including those of taxpayers and the poor who can least afford higher food prices.

Hillary Clinton frets publicly about CAFOs

What must the ‘Rural Americans for Hillary’ think of this?

Days after naming a high-profile champion of factory-style animal farms as co-chair of "Rural Americans for Hillary," Hillary Clinton backtracked a little yesterday. She expressed …

Farm bill update

Payment limits topple, but the livestock title looks good — for now

Update [2007-12-14 13:5:54 by Tom Philpott]:The Senate just passed the farm bill, 79-14. Presumably the livestock title is intact. Now it’s time to mount an …

Beyond the farm bill

Progressive urban food bills could help reshape America’s food future

The following is a guest essay by Christopher D. Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His work has appeared in The Nation, Harper's, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor and Mother Jones. ----- After many legislative hiccups along the way, Congress is rapidly deciding the fate of America's food supply: what's grown, how it's produced and by whom, and how that food will affect our health and the planet. The roughly $288 billion Farm Bill, covering everything from urban nutrition and food stamp programs to soil conservation and farm subsidies, will dictate much about what we eat and at what price, both at the checkout line and in long-term societal costs. Photo: iStockphoto And if agribusiness lobbies keep getting their way, as they've largely done in this year's Farm Bill battles, the "food bill" we all pay will be astronomical -- not just the cost of the Farm Bill itself, but the hidden costs of a taxpayer-subsidized industrial food system that causes profound harm to public health and the environment, as well as to farmers and workers. Despite valiant progressive efforts that may bring some change at the margins, the big picture is not pretty: increasingly centralized power over food, abetted by lax antitrust policies and farm subsidies that provide the meat industry and food-processing corporations with cheap raw ingredients; huge subsidies for corn and soy, most of which ends up as auto fuel, livestock feed, and additives for junk food, fattening America's waistlines while soiling the environment; and, despite organic food's rising popularity, a farming system that's still heavily reliant on toxic pesticides (500,000 tons per year), which pollute our waterways and bloodstreams while gobbling up millions of gallons of fossil fuel. As a nation we consume (quite literally) some 100 billion gallons of oil annually in the making and long-distance transport of our food supply. Closer to home, despite annual crop surpluses and the dumping of cheap excess supplies onto foreign markets, residents in poor urban areas are deprived of fresh, nutritious food. These so-called "food deserts" -- whose only gastronomic oases are fast-food joints and liquor marts -- feature entire zip codes devoid of fresh produce. Government studies show this de facto food segregation leads to serious nutritional deficits -- such as soaring obesity and diabetes rates -- among poor people. And in the countryside, taxpayer subsidies directed mostly to large-scale growers and agribusiness are plowing smaller farmers out of business at a rate of one every half an hour, creating individual misery and community-wide economic havoc. What's to be done? Congress (particularly the Senate, where debate currently resides) needs to hear Americans -- urban and rural alike -- demand serious change, to shift our tax dollars ($20 billion to $25 billion a year in farm subsidies alone) toward organic, locally oriented, nutritious food that sustains farming communities and consumer health. Investing our tax dollars in food isn't the problem; instead of commodity subsidies that ultimately benefit the production of meat and fattening processed foods by a handful of corporations, we need a New Deal for food that reinvests funds in sustainably grown, healthful produce grown by a diversity of farmers. Even as the congressional Farm Bill battles grind toward a mostly disconcerting conclusion, it's not too soon to look beyond this omnivore's omnibus, and begin considering a national movement of progressive urban food bills.

Australians R Us!

No country in the world is more like the U.S., so where’s our national climate-change leader?

Kevin Rudd. Photo: AP / Rob Griffith Culturally, politically, and spiritually, what country in the world is most like the United States? It's not Canada and it's sure not Great Britain. The answer is Australia. Ask anyone who's been there. It just feels like America there, from the sprawling suburbs to the cars people drive, from the obsession with sports to their unit of currency: the Australian dollar. Add these factors too: both countries were British colonies, both wiped out indigenous peoples, both have big cities in the east and vast frontiers to the west, both have huge coal deposits and per capita greenhouse-gas emissions that lead most of the world, and, in the last several years, both have had conservative national governments that basically deny the reality of global warming. The Aussies R Us! So how, then, did Australia just complete a national election where the issue of climate change played a central role and may have determined the outcome? How did a country so steeped in America's brand of fierce self-reliance, consumerism, and fossil-fuel addiction throw out a "climate skeptic" prime minister and hand a landslide victory to a Labor candidate who talked persistently about ratifying Kyoto? And most important, if they can do it Down Under, is there still hope for America?

A little Al for the rest of us

Blogging from Al Gore’s speech in Bali

Post by Richard Graves, U.S. youth delegate and editor of It's Getting Hot in Here As I wrote this post, I was listening to Al Gore give his speech at the U.N. Climate Negotiations. It had been a long trip here, and despite the schedule and the heat I was still excited. As we sat in the audience, we spoke with Kevin Knobloch from UCS and watched Kelley trying to talk with U.S. representative Paula Dobriansky ... but we were all here to listen to Al Gore. I was surprised to hear him lead with a reference from the Holocaust, but it hit home. How can we ignore those who are the harbingers of the threat of climate change. People can't ignore stories of people like Claire Antrea, a young nun from Kiribati whose home is being flooded. These threats are coming for us, and the sense of urgency must come from the fact the science is changing so fast that none of us, even in the developed world, can assume we are safe. This is a powerful idea, and one that seems to be coming true.