In the run up to covering my sixth UN climate summit, my fifth for Mongabay, my editor Glenn Scherer and I decided on a tighter focus for the stories I’d pursue in Madrid — forests, forest policies and related issues like impacts on indigenous peoples.
My pre-COP story linked here focuses on the highest priority of this meeting — unfinished rule-writing business from COP24 in Katowice, Poland. Already controversy is brewing, expectations are low and the stakes are just as high as ever. Stay tuned.
For the fourth time in his papacy, Pope Francis has convened bishops in Rome for a synod, or special meeting. The one he called for Oct. 6-27, 2019, is the first one ever to focus on an ecological region — Amazonia. As my story for Mongabay details, Francis appears eager to reclaim the mantle of environmental leadership he staked out for himself in 2015 with the historic teaching document Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.
This story in some ways connects to my last story — can religious leaders use their moral authority, and the strength of billions of followers, to pressure governments in places critical to the health of the planet to more urgently and forcefully protect the environment? So far, little has moved the leaders of the industrialized world to rise to the existential threat to human existence posed by the global warming already causing such damage with just 1.8 degrees F of warming. What happens when we get to the predicted 5 or 6 degrees F in the next 50 years?
At the close of the UN Climate Summit in December 2018 in Poland, United General Secretary Antonio Guterres was so discouraged by the lackluster outcome that he told world leaders that he would admonish them to increase their urgency and ambition for climate mitigation during Climate Week in New York City (Sept. 23-27, 2019).
Guterres is not alone. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, in her inimitable way, has inspired millions of school-age children around the world to organize and rally to demand that world leaders treat global warming at the existential crisis that more and more scientists are finding it is.
Add to that an emerging group of faith leaders — the Interfaith Rainforest Iniative (IRI) — that aims to use its moral clout and power in numbers to pressure national leaders to enact policies to slow, reverse and stop deforestation in five tropical countries, as my latest Mongabay story describes.
This kind of religious political lobbying comes with challenges and obstacles, as I explain. But here’s the goal:
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”
Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.
But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.
I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.
It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.
I had been looking for an opportunity to write another story regarding woody biomass and the dubious United Nations policy that allows the accelerating pollution from burning those pellets for energy in the United Kingdom and across the European Union to be ignored in carbon accounting mandates. The opening came in mid-June when the UK announced plans to legislate that it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many cheered the less-than ambitious goal; if serious greenhouse gas reductions aren’t achieved globally by 2030, the International Panel on Climate Change has warned, nature will not be forgiving as floods, heat waves, drought, sea-level rise, wildfires, ferocious storms, disease and dislocation morph from crisis to calamity.
This story in Mongabay, which my editor Glenn Scherer welcomed and enhanced, explains as clearly and fairly as I can the danger to the planet of implicitly encouraging deforestation to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy with no obligation to report those carbon emissions.
One of the most disturbing stories I’ve covered in recent years now moves from the forests and sidelines to — possibly — an international court in Brussels, as this story illustrates.
Here’s the gist of the story, as summarized by my editor Glenn Scherer:
Plaintiffs in five European nations and the U.S. filed suit Monday, 4 March, in the European General Court in Luxembourg against the European Union. At issue is the EU’s rapid conversion of coal-burning powerplants to burn wood pellets and chips, a process known as bioenergy. Activists see the EUs bioenergy policies as reckless and endangering the climate.
Bioenergy was classified as carbon neutral under the Kyoto Protocol, meaning that nations don’t need to count wood burning for energy among their Paris Agreement carbon emissions. However, studies over the last 20 years have found that bioenergy, while technically carbon neutral, is not neutral within the urgent timeframe in which the world must cut emissions.
Visitors in Wake Forest University’s homepage in January 2019 were first greeted by this image and these two stories. The first story explains in details the study abroad program I developed with colleague Miles Silman in tropical ecology and science writing in the Peruvian Amazon. The second focuses on the largest grant in Wake Forest history to create a science and education team — CINCIA — to address the impact of deforestation and pollution from illegal gold mining in the southern Peruvian Amazon.
This last story from the UN climate summit in Poland sums up a bit of the best and worst of what happened at an annual meeting of 196 nations where everyone clearly understood the urgency and the stakes involved in accelerating global warming. Twelve years. Twelve years is the time scientists estimate we have left to take unprecedented transformational action to reduce carbon emissions, shift to renewable energy sources like wind and solar and slow the rate of deforestation to little or none. There’s no choice. There’s no Plan B.
Despite the desperate pleas of NGOs and youthful activists to act aggressively, leaders of the industrialized world did not act aggressively. That’s because politically and economically, they refuse to. Elected leaders are absolutely the least capable people on earth to do what necessary to meet this challenge. They are simply are incapable of moving past their own interests, their own conflicts and their own short-term thinking. As one source told me, leaders of the G-20 will finally come around when its far too late to do anything meaningful to prevent climate catastrophe.
This story, linked here, is far and away the most important one I’ve reported and written in the five climate summits I’ve covered dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014. It demonstrates politics triumphing over science, and it could not come at a worse time. In a conference dedicated to technical details, the unwillingness to accurately account for the escalating carbon emissions coming from burning wood for energy in the UK, throughout the EU and increasingly in Asia, amounts to a crime against nature — who is not fooled by what one source called “fraudulent accounting.”
An excerpt from my story:
“Let’s be clear about this: delegates from developed countries are well aware of this dangerous loophole as they draft the Paris Rulebook that could be designed to remedy the problem at the 24th U.N. climate summit, or COP24, here in Katowice, Poland. Yet they have ignored the pleas, the scientific data, the detailed charts identifying the danger, submitted by impassioned NGOs over the past week and a half.”
Mongabay prides itself on its close coverage of Brazil, especially the Amazon, its indigenous people and its biodiversity. It is one the earth’s most important ecosystems. Everything about the extreme-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, screams that the Amazon, and everyone who lives in it, is in dire jeopardy as long as the dangerous, Trump-like demagogue is in office. My editors asked for a story about Brazil at COP24 in Poland, the last climate summit before Bolsonaro takes office. The link is here.
“Bolsonaro, who unlike Trump, enjoyed a clear majority presidential win, has remained a Trumpian figure of discord and divisiveness during his transition to power. He has assailed environmental regulators, given lethal encouragement to gun owners, and struck fear deep in the hearts of indigenous peoples and environmental activists in a country that already sees more forest guardians murdered annually than any other country in the world.”